For me Coltsfoot signals spring. It is the very first flower to bloom in the specific micro-region encompassing 5 miles around my home, which is mountainous, forested, spring rich, and high in elevation. I have yet to come across coltsfoot anywhere else in the county, which is a curiousity to me as it is said to have naturalized easily yet unlike bloodroot, mayapples, and trillium who cascade down the mountain over 13 miles, are present on the opposite ends of the county, and even off trails in the forest, coltsfoot remains harnessed firmly in the location we first found it. Similarly, over a decade nettles, pedicularis, solomon’s seal, daylilies and others have spread and moved, proliferating, yet coltsfoot remains loyal to its one area. This fascinates me!
Year after year, the bright sight of coltsfoot lifts my spirits, usually in need of lifting up by the time the flowers pop from ditches and dusty gravel along the dirt road. Their company and presence fill me with hope and a sense of buoyancy.
Another thing of note with coltsfoot, in my experience with plants I am fond of nibbling, tincturing, and brewing teas with them. However, while I have a quart jar of coltsfoot tinctured, it is from many years ago and has only been used twice, possibly thrice, thus far. I have tasted coltsfoot but was neither wowed nor did I find the flavor unpleasant. I feel no urge to either ‘use’ coltsfoot as a medicine, nor a call to eat the flowers and leaves. In the years I’ve lived here, once I was drawn to make a mandala in the woods, and it came at coltsfoot’s nickering.
Coltsfoot is a plant ally for me that addresses spirit rather than body, an intertwining of two beings living ‘here’ where we are. She welcomes me home, right from where the driveway meets the road and she stays there, happy with her spot with seemingly no desire to sow seeds away from where she is. An unambitious plant in a sense, grounded and certain of her place quite literally. Maybe over a few more decades that will change, but so far this is one plant quite firmly adhered to an area.
While coltsfoot is a powerful expectorant, it speaks to me more of spring song, hope, resilience, survival, place, comfort, contentment, and of home.
Botanical Name: Tussilago Farfara
Common Names: Coltsfoot, Horsehoof, Ass’s Foot, Coughwort, Fieldhove
Habitat and Growing Conditions:
I’m following the colts foot trail right now. First the flowers appear, between end February and late March depending on your area, low to the ground and dazzlingly bright along the roadside, growing where there’s gravel in micro areas that are dry amidst the moistness that comes from being along the creek. The leaves come afterward.
They like the full sun that shines through the still bare branches, in a few more months these full sun areas will be shady, and the coltsfoot flowers gone; their big leaves will be in place through the summer, dusted with what looks like ash but what is the residue from the felty down that falls off the leaves as they grow bigger. The flowers are often confused with dandelion, even though the flower heads and stems are very different. Coltsfoot stems have distinctive reddish bracts and white hairs, very noticeable different to dandelion stems.
This plant, while native to Europe, has naturalized in North America easily. It has an affinity for waste places, poor soils, and both wet and dry areas.
Coltsfoot gets its name from the shape of its leaves, that resemble the print left by a horse. The name ‘tussilago’ signifies ‘cough dispeller’.
Before matches came along, the felt-like covering from the top of the growing leaves was wrapped in a rag dipped in saltpetre then sun-dried for use as tinder.
Goldfinches line their nests with the silky hairs that crown the seeds and were also used by humans to stuff their pillows and mattresses, likely in combination with other foraged materials.
Nicholas Culpeper, in his Complete Herbal, associates Coltsfoot with the planet Venus.
The young leaves can be eaten as a wild green mixed with other wild greens, and the flowers are also edible, but best used in small quantities rather than the ‘main course’ (as one would cook lamb’s quarters).
Coltsfoot flowers reportedly have and can be used to dye wool, giving colors from greenish yellow to yellowish orange.
Medicinal Actions and Properties:
Cool, moist, and dry, mucilaginous, astringent, and salty energetics.
Expectorant, demulcent, and tonic to the lungs. Anti-spasmodic and diuretic.
Stagnation (slow, sluggish, stuck in the muckish) and atrophy (degenerating, deteriorating).
Dry and cold in the first degree.
Respiratory System, Lungs
Cooling to the throat and lungs.
For chronic respiratory infections that go deep, where mucus is stuck and hard to raise and expel. Being both mucilaginous and moistening, it wets the area thus loosening old mucus, which can then be released. It is better used slowly at the beginning, so as to gently do its work otherwise it can bring up big quantities of mucus that haven’t fully let go of the throat, leading to excessive and exhausting coughing fits.
In sore throat conditions that come with painful coughing, the kind that keeps one up all night, it is helpful.
As an ally for lung conditions, such as bronchitis, pleurisy, pneumonia, whooping cough, especially respiratory conditions that come after exposure to cold, damp, and wind, often in the spring.
Coltsfoot is often used in combination with other respiratory herbs such as ground ivy, marshmallow, and elecampane, and mullein for throat and lung conditions that often feel ‘hot’.
Leaves, dried for use in infusions and used fresh in making tincture.
Maude Grieves, however, shares a recipe for coltsfoot that is prepared by decoction and is made and used along these lines: 1 oz. leaf in a quart of water boiled down to a pint and sweetened with honey, to be used for colds and asthma by the frequent teacupful.
Fresh leaves pounded to make a poultice for swellings and inflammations.
Coltsfoot, like comfrey, has controversy surrounding it due to its pyrrolizidine alkaloid content, which can cause liver damage thus is best avoided by people who already have liver conditions. It is said to interfere with blood pressure and liver medications, as well as anti-coagulants. It may also trigger an allergic response in those who have allergies to ragweed. It is a plant that can be substituted by others also suited to the task of aiding lung and throat, which may be better alternatives person-to-person.
A Modern Herbal Volume 1, Maude Grieves p. 212 – 213
The Earthwise Herbal, Volume I: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants, Matthew Wood, p. 494-496
Common Herbs for Natural Health, Juliette de Bairacli Levy, p. 44