Thursday, April 30, 2015

Coltsfoot: Eye Candy and Cough Syrup

ColtsfootI haven’t checked with an optometrist, but I may have a winter-related vision problem. When five or six months of winter-white finally give way to a mostly brown world each early spring, my eyeballs hurt – they ache for something bright in the landscape. That’s probably why I plant a few additional crocus bulbs in the yard every fall, and why I search out early-blooming native wildflowers like bloodroot and Carolina spring beauty.

But what thrills me most is how clumps of yellow coltsfoot flowers emerge, long before their leaves come out, from muddy roadside ditches, rail embankments and other sites with a history of soil disturbance. Coltsfoot flowers look a bit like small dandelions, but without any leaves in sight. Maybe it’s the contrast between their bright color and the sepia environs, or perhaps it’s their audacity at blooming so early, but these tiny sunbursts do much to dispel my winter fatigue.

Although coltsfoot is native to Europe and Asia, it has naturalized throughout North America. Many non-native plants came here accidentally, but this one was likely planted by early settlers because of its history as a medicinal plant. We don’t know if coltsfoot cheered up European settlers as snow receded, but we do know they used it to treat coughs and colds in wintertime.

Coltsfoot’s botanical species name is Tussilago, derived from the Latin word for cough. The fact that its leaves, which emerge as the flowers die back, have a shape similar to a horse’s hoof has given rise to its common name.

Pliny the Elder (think Socrates, but Roman instead of Greek and slightly less ancient) treated his asthma by inhaling the smoke of dried coltsfoot leaves and flowers. In an ironic and tragic twist, Pliny died of smoke inhalation during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

There was a period of time in Europe when the coltsfoot blossom was the symbol for an apothecary, the flower virtually synonymous with healing. And following a tradition that dates back thousands of years, some Chinese still use commercial cough syrup made with coltsfoot.

It’s common to assume that plant-based remedies are one step removed from placebos, or at least universally benign. The truth is that herbal medicine is nothing to sneeze at. Think about digoxin, nicotine, caffeine and THC, to name but a few naturally-occurring but potent chemicals. Because herbal medicine can possibly interfere with prescription drugs or exacerbate health conditions, no herbal remedy should be used without first consulting a licensed medical professional.

In fact there is concern about the safety of coltsfoot in some quarters. In a 1999 University of Iowa study, researchers documented an increase in liver cancer among rats ingesting large doses of coltsfoot. However, because the Iowa study concluded coltsfoot’s health risk was due to just one particular compound that it (the plant, not the study) contained, some German researchers are working to develop a strain that’s free of the offending substance.

Making cough syrup from plants requires supervision, but using coltsfoot as a tonic for the spirit need not involve doctors. I encourage everyone to check out these splashy early-blooming flowers. Not only is this eye candy approved by the American Dental Association, it’s free and safe.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia user Andreas Trepte.

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

One Response

  1. Derek Muirden says:

    Coltsfoot! The first color of spring I look for and the first I always find. And in the salty, sandy, nutrients starved roadside ditches. You can have your pampered daffodils, I ‘ll celebrate the certain promise of spring with the sunny coltsfoot!

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