Colt'sfoot Courtesy of Nova CC BY-SA 2.5 license.

Tussilago farfara 004.jpg

Colt'sfoot Tussilago farfara.

In this series we review the wild flowers of the UK and Europe. We start with one of the earliest flowering species.

                                                     Quick guide


Medicinal uses- Yes

Edible -Yes

Common - Yes

Photographs -yes.

Distribution - Most of Europe ,  northern Asia and North America.


Alternative names from the past and some still in use today. Includes horse foot, Asses foot., FOALSFOOT,BULLSFOOT, HORSEHOOF, DONNHOVE, SONS-BEFORE-FATHERS.--

Botanical features.

The coltsfoot Tussilago farfara, has acquired many country titles some of which are named above. Most of these titles allude to the shape of the plants foliage so it is appropriate at this point to look at the plants 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 acidic 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 the bane of gardeners, for it is difficult to eradicate for reasons that will become evident.

The roots---The rhizomes evolve from a tap root which in turn is formed from a 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 at the 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 two feet or more {60 cm}. 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.

Flowers and seeds

Next I will endeavour to describe the flowers and seeds. Coltsfoot produces the flowering stems and often seeds before the foliage appears.This has led to another country title for the plant "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 disk florets in the manner of the 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 ray florets 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 150+. When ripe the plumed  seeds are dispersed by the wind,again, in the manner of a 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.

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 spring when they become elongated and flowering commences.{photograph above shows the foliage in autumn just before die back begins}. The shoots then 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 2-3months, when buried this period may be some what lessened.It is interesting  for the naturalist to note that gold finches utilise the plumes to line their nest. The seeds provide the birds with early spring seeds. 

The foliage.----Next we encounter the foliage which occurs as a rule when the flowers have faded. They appear on long stalks and the hoof shaped blades which are 4-6 cm across when young. Both sides of the leaf surface is covered with 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 in archaic times to use as tinder. The leaves of the plant can attain the width of 8 inches{16 cm} during the summer months and abide well into the autumn.

It is prudent to point out at this juncture that the foliage have a superficial resemblance to those of the butterbur {Petasites hybridus} another common plant of the countryside. The leaves of this species must not be collected by mistake when gathering colt's foot foliage for medicinal or culinary purposes.

Now we come to the medicinal and culinary virtues of this common plant.

The plants Latin title of Tussilago means cough plant or cough dispeller, giving one a clue to one of its many virtues.It has long been associated with anti-cough agents, giving rise to another country title for the plant that of cough wort. It is used in many commercial products produced to help alleviate the symptoms of coughs. The flower stems are candied and sold in chemist {drug store} in the form of a colt's foot stick, a hard rock like stick which helps to counteract the coughing. I remember as a boy my mother held great faith in these hexagon shaped sticks and were always kept in stock.

It is the flowers and leaves that are utilised in medicinal preparations for the treatment of asthma , bronchitis and coughs. The leaves as an infusion. flowers fresh for syrups dried for infusions.

Recent studies have revealed that the leaves and flowers of the colt's foot contain small amounts of alkaloids that can, over a long period of time, have a detrimental affect on the body. However, if the plants are only utilised for a few weeks during the year {say for two weeks at a time} there is no detrimental affect.

It is always wise to follow these simple rules about using herbal preparations which are made at home. Correct identification of the plant is essential. Only try small amounts of a new drug to test your bodies tolerance levels. Always use the right parts in the right amounts in the right way. For example 1oz of dried flowers per one pint of water. Do you infuse the mixture or make a decoction? There are many fine herbals that will give the reader many recipes for home made preparations. { SEE WILD HERB ADVISE}

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