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Coltsfoot, a Common and Useful Herb.

Updated on August 6, 2015

Notes from a Lancashire Countryman.

The coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, has acquired many country titles which include horse hoof, ass's foot, foals foot, bulls foot, and donnhove. Most of these titles allude to the shape of the foliage. before looking into the medicinal uses of the plant it is appropriate to look at its botanical features.

I have been interested in wild flowers for as long as I can remember. The advantage to a budding naturalist is the fact that plants do not run or fly away, thus, it is a good place to start studying nature. The root of the Coltsfoot is a perennial rhizome which grows on all but the most acid soils. It thrives on heavy land especially where there is clay.Although they are likely to be found on arable land and gardens where they are a bane to gardeners for it is difficult to eradicate for reasons that will become evident.

THE ROOTS---- The rhizomes evolve from a taproot which in turn is formed from the seedling. The adventitious roots are very contractile and pull the shoot down into the soil, where it becomes firmly anchored. rhizomes form from the buried buds. In heavy clay they have been encountered to a depth of over a metre. Vegetative reproduction is from the thick rhizomes. Fragmented rhizomes are capable of producing new shoots. The larger the piece of rhizome the more likely that they will reproduce. Studies have revealed that new shoots have emerged from a depth of 2 feet or more.

The rhizomes are of a light colour and usually have scales. Studies have also revealed that those buried deeply appear to keep their vitality for long periods of time.

Coltsfoot flowers

Coltsfoot flowers are a familiar sight in the countryside from March till may. Note the lack of foliage.Photograph by D.A.L.
Coltsfoot flowers are a familiar sight in the countryside from March till may. Note the lack of foliage.Photograph by D.A.L.

The Flowers and Seeds

Next I will endeavour to describe the flowers and seeds. Coltsfoot produces the floweringstems and often the seeds before the foliage appears. This has led to another quaint country title of Sons before fathers. The flowering stems are clad with a purplish coloured leaf-like bracts that clasp the stem . The bracts are covered with fine white hairs. These stems attain the height of six to eight inches. Each stem is terminated by a single flower head about 2cm across.They consist of ray and diskflorets in the manner of a dandelion. The ray florets are narrow and spreading and are 14mm long. They are bright yellow in colour and may be encountered from Late February until late April or May. It is not uncommon for the underside of the rayflorets to be tinged with an orange or red colouring.

Seeds arise in the outer ray florets and rarely in the central disk florets. Studies have shown that the average seed production of each flower head is 157 on average.When ripe the plumed seeds are dispersed by the wind, again , in the manner of the dandelion. Coltsfoot seed is not dormant and does not require light for germination. They tend to germinate soon after being shed from the parent plant, usually on the surface of the soil. The seedlings then form a tap root.{see roots above}

In autumn the "flower" buds begin to form and the old foliage begins to die down. These buds develop through December and January. They soon respond to the call of early spring when they become elongated and flowering commences. The shoots die down leaving the rhizomes of the previous year which then produce the aerial shoots and the cycle begins again. seeds only remain viable for 2-3 months, when buried this period may be somewhat lessened. It is interesting for the naturalist to note that gold finches utilise the plumes to line their nests.

Gold finch

The beautiful goldfinch lines its nest with the plumes of coltsfoot. Photograph courtesy of Lukasz Lukasik.
The beautiful goldfinch lines its nest with the plumes of coltsfoot. Photograph courtesy of Lukasz Lukasik.

The Foliage

Next we encounter the foliage usually after the flowers have faded. They appear on long stalks and the hoof-shaped blades are about 4-6cm across when young. Both sides of the leaf surface is covered by felt like hairs. However, the felt on the upper surface tends to fall away as the leaf expands. This felt  "cobwebby" in appearance easily rubs off and was once collected as a tinder in archaic times. The leaves of coltsfoot can attain the width of 8 inches {16cm} during the summer months and abide well into the autumn {fall}. 

It is precautionary to note at this point that the leaves have a superficial resemblance to those of another common plant the Butterbur { Petasites hybridus}. The leaves of this species should NOT be collected by mistake.

Coltsfoot autumn leave

The hoof shaped foliage of coltsfoot abide throughout the summer and into Autumn. Photograph by D.A.L.
The hoof shaped foliage of coltsfoot abide throughout the summer and into Autumn. Photograph by D.A.L.

Medicinal Uses.

Now we come to the medicinal virtues of this common plant. The main uses is for respiratory problems, coughs, and asthma. Indeed the genus name Tussilago derives from the Latin tussis {pronounced Tewsis} meaning a cough.all parts of the plant abound in Mucilage and contain tannins and traces of bitter glucoside, along with essenetial oil. The flowers are thought to reduce inflammation.. The leaves are rich in vitaminC. The young leaves may be added to salads. Coltsfoot is demulcent, expectorant and has tonic qualities.

In times gone by a decoction of 1 oz of leaves in 1 quart of water, boiled until reduced to a pint was sweetened by honey or liquorice and taken in teaspoon doses frequently for colds and asthma. Coltsfoot tea is taken for the same purpose.

The dried leaves { usually mixed with more aromatic foliage} was once smoked as a remedy for asthma { by clearing the air ways in the lungs}

The flowers were said to produce a fine country wine{ I must confess I have never tasted it}.

The flowering stems were once candied to produce the hexagon shaped sticks sold in pharmacists {drug store} to alleviate the symptoms of coughs and colds. I remember as a boy my mother held great store by these and they were always to be found in stock, for such afflictions.

A syrup can be made of the leaves {and for a tea} for the same symptoms. More modern herbals recommend an infusion of 2 teaspoons of leaves in 250mm of boiling water for ten minutes. The dosage is stated as three cups daily. It may be sweetened with honey or liquorice.

Always remember that correct identification is essential when collectingplants for internal consumption

Incidentally the young tops of nettles are now ready for use in home made medicine and culinary preparations. { see my hub Nettles just a weed ? you must be joking.}

Young nettle tops

Young nettle plants are now ready for home made preparations. Photograph by D.A.L.
Young nettle plants are now ready for home made preparations. Photograph by D.A.L.

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    • D.A.L. profile image
      Author

      Dave 8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      lelanew55, I am glad that you, like me, are interested in herbs and wild flora in general. Will be over to your hubs soon.

      jayjay40, I know of your love for nature in general glad you enjoyed it hank you for leaving your kind comment.

    • jayjay40 profile image

      jayjay40 8 years ago from Bristol England

      I love wild flowers you open up a whole new world for me. Brilliant hub

    • lelanew55 profile image

      lelanew55 8 years ago

      What a great hub about one of my favorite subjects, herbs D.A.L. I am going to learn a lot from you. I am bookmarking this one and will read the other hubs on herbs soon. Thank you

    • D.A.L. profile image
      Author

      Dave 8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Darlene good morning to you. Hub pages are about sharing looking forward to it. Thank darski for reading.

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 8 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      Good morning David, I love your hub, it opens a world to me that reminds me of my book, where all the Lucy's and Agnes were all connect together, remember the Poppies? Now, I must say, I love your country and your knowledge is quite impressive. I rated this hub up and can't wait to share my stories with you this week, Have an awesome day...your friend and fan darski

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