If the red breasted robin is the bird symbol of spring's arrival, then coltsfoot is the plant world's version. These tenacious little flowers bravely pop their buds out of the ground, of which they prefer disturbed, sandy soil like by roads and riverbeds, often before the snow has completely melted, and lift their yellow heads to the sun. Their cheerful presence after the long, barren (or so it seems) winter appears to communicate, "Hey! It's a fresh start! We're still here, and we're going to make it. Good things are coming!"
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is one I've always thought a bit strange in that it seems to start with the end, and end with the beginning. Most plants will send out their shoots, stems, leaves, and then blossom and seed. Coltsfoot, on the other hand, begins with the flower, seed, and then develops the leaves. In the past, coltsfoot was referred to as "son before the father" for this reason. Although it does propagate by seed (and the seeds need hardly any time at all to germinate - just 2 days!), coltsfoot develops and spreads by rhizome as well. The leaves do look like a colt's hoof print, and can get quite big as the summer goes on. The top of the leaf is somewhat waxy, and the bottom of the leaf is covered with fine, white hairs.
The question of whether coltsfoot is edible is a tricky one. The roots contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids, a toxic substance that can damage the liver. The leaves are thought to contain this, too, though in lesser amounts. For this reason, it is best not to consume the root, and to consume the aerial parts in very small amounts. Those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or who have liver issues should keep away from coltsfoot. It is said that the buds, stalks, and leaves can be added to salads. The stalks and leaves can be boiled and seasoned with salt and pepper just like a vegetable and added to potato dishes. Traditionally, coltsfoot leaf ash was used as a salt substitute as it is quite high in sodium.
Traditionally, and even today, coltsfoot has been used as an herbal remedy for certain respiratory ailments. It can be used as a tea, tincture, or even in a smoking blend to treat coughs, asthma, and congestion. Often, it will be combined with licorice, mullein, or thyme.
Of course, as with any health concerns, it is best to seek the guidance of your healthcare practitioner and a trained herbalist to ascertain whether coltsfoot is right for you.
** This is fun, right?! And that's all it is for now. Information on the traditional uses and properties of herbs in this website are for educational use only, and are not to be mistaken for medical advice. Every attempt has been made for accuracy, but none is guaranteed. Many traditional uses and properties of herbs have not been validated by the FDA or Health Canada. If you have health issues, concerns, or questions, consult your health care practitioner. **
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Clinical herbalist. Mother. Teacher. Ever student.