Coltsfoot, Spring’s First Gold

By Kathleen Hale, Member, The Herb Society of America

ColtsfootYou know that people say that in dreams, we cannot read?  We see the letters, but they don’t make sense.  I think I only noticed that after I was told it was true.  Your results may vary.

At one time very few people could read. So they turned to signs when they needed medicinal help.  Pictures, really, of plants well known to address what ailed you.   The “Apothecary Rose” is a lovely and famous example.  Another, attributed to medieval France, was the coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara).  A colorful rendering of that cheerful yellow flower – a bit like dandelion — would indicate that relief was at hand.

Coltsfoot could be applied externally to sooth the skin, used in cooking and used to make wine.  Its highest esteem came from what it could reportedly do for the common cold, bronchitis, laryngitis and asthma.  Coltsfoot’s Latin name means, pretty much, “good for coughs.” Prepared as a tea, a syrup or in lozenges, coltsfoot was the first remedy for coughs.   Its smoke might also be inhaled to reduce phlegm and shortness of breath.

Like so many plants with legendary medicinal use, dangers are associated with using coltsfoot. It contains levels of tumorigenic pyrrolizidine alkaloids which can be fatal.  The therapeutic use of coltsfoot, once common in Germany, was suspended after the death of an infant whose mother had drunk a coltsfoot preparation during pregnancy. Since then, a clone of coltsfoot was developed without harmful levels of those alkaloids. You will NOT find this variety by the side of the road.

Coltsfoot is not commonly a garden plant.  It was brought to North America for its useful qualities, escaped into the wild, and is now a plant of wasteland and disturbed roadsides. In some places it is considered invasive.  Still, it’s hard to resent coltsfoot, because it reminds us that spring is close; in fact, it blooms even before the snows are gone.

Strangely, the flowers appear before the leaves, which led some to call it “Son before the Father.”  Like tiny dandelion flowers, they appear overnight in neglected places. It is the leaf, which appears later, after the flowers have withered and dropped, that is said to resemble the shape of an impression of a colt’s foot.

In the language of flowers (though I really wouldn’t want to try to pick and preserve those delicate flowers long enough to make a statement), coltsfoot means, “Justice will be done.”  It’s only justice to respect a plant that brings star-like beauty in neglected places, and reminds us that spring is coming.

Be certain that you have correctly identified wild plants. And, remember to consult your health care provider before eating wild foods or herbs which may have powerful effects and be contraindicative with medicines or supplements.


It is the policy of The Herb Society of America not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment.

2 thoughts on “Coltsfoot, Spring’s First Gold

  1. Very good article, Kathleen! Do you think we might see Coltsfoot in our area? I don’t recall seeing it, but it might get covered in snow around here!

    Like

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