Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara)

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara)

Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Asterales
Family: Asteraceae
Genus: Tussilago
Species: T. farfara

Coltsfoot () is a plant in the family Asteraceae. Other common names include Ass’s foot, Bull’s foot, Butterbur, Coughwort, Farfara, Foal’s foot, Foalswort, Horse Foot and Winter heliotrope. The Coltsfoot name refers to the shape of the leaves.

Common throughout Britain, reaching heights of up to 1065m in Scotland. Elsewhere, this species is found throughout most of Europe reaching its northernmost extreme in Norway. It also occurs in North Africa, western and northern Asia, and has been introduced to North America.

Coltsfoot is native to several locations in Europe and Asia. It is also a common plant in North America and South America where it has been introduced, most likely by settlers as a medicinal item. The plant is often found in waste and disturbed places and along roadsides and paths. In some areas it is considered an invasive species. In New England, coltsfoot is an invasive weed that threatens native plant habitats.

Occurs in a range of habitats that are typically disturbed, including rough grassland, shingle and sand dunes, road verges, waste ground, cliff slopes, spoil heaps and river banks. In agricultural areas, colt’s-foot can be a stubborn arable weed. This is a common plant of roadsides, conspicuous because it blooms very early in spring. In the areas where it is found, coltsfoot is usually the first small herb to flower in spring, it is still called the “son before the father” plant because its flowers appear long before its woolly leaves. The leaves appear only after the flowers have gone. The large leaves with their thick felt-covered undersides occur in rosettes. They are similar in shape to animal hooves, hence the names colt’s or foal’s-foot. The distinctive, dark green, hoof-shaped leaves are hairy, which helps to distinguish coltsfoot from similar-looking plants.

This plant has solid, purplish woolly stems that give rise to the flowers. The shiny yellow flowers resemble small dandelions, and open in the sun. The plant’s composite flower heads contain two kinds of flowers: little tube-like ones in the middle and strap-shaped ones on the outside. This herb is often found growing along sunny sidewalks and roadsides, and in rocky fields.

Coltsfoot is a perennial herbaceous plant that spreads by seeds and rhizomes. Tussilago is often found in colonies of dozens of plants. The flowers, which superficially resemble dandelions, appear in early spring before dandelions. The flowers, which are present from February to April, close at night and in poor weather and are pollinated by a range of flies and bees. The seeds are dispersed by wind, but to seedlings require constantly moist conditions to survive. Most plants spread from the rhizome by vegetative reproduction.

Flowering time: February to May
Height: 3-8 inches
Flower color: yellow
Flower head diameter: 15-35 mm 
Flowering shoot length: 5-15 cm 
Leaf width: 10-20 cm

It has been used medicinally as a cough suppressant. The name “tussilago” itself means “cough suppressant.” The plant has been used since at least historical times to treat lung ailments such as asthma as well as various coughs by way of smoking. Crushed flowers supposedly cured skin conditions, and the plant has been consumed as a food item.

This plant has been put to a wide range of uses through the years. The leaves can be incorporated into salads, cooked and used to make tea. The felt from the leaves has been used as a stuffing agent and dried for use as tinder. Colt’s-foot is still available in health-food outlets as a treatment for coughs and other chest problems. The plant must be boiled before being ingested as it contains substances that can be toxic to the liver.

The plant has been used since pre history to relieve coughs and other respiratory problems. It is made into herbal teas (un-opened flowers and leaves) and is found in commercial cough preparations. It is an ingredient in concoctions used to treat diarrhea. The leaves are sometimes smoked for relief of congestion. The crushed leaves or a leaf decoction is used externally where it may be applied to sores, injuries, rashes and painful joints. The large mucilage content accounts for most of the medical benefit derived from the plant. It also contains tannins, salts, sterols* and inulin** several other possibly active components.

Coltsfoot’s (Tussilago farfara) lore lies in its smoke. During World War II, soldiers in Europe smoked it as a substitute for tobacco, and through the ages the dried leaves were burnt and inhaled to treat lung infections. Some still refer to it as “coughwort.” It is still smoked in some areas today as herbal tobacco, and the names ‘baccy plant’ and ‘poor-man’s-baccy’ survive in some parts of Britain. 

Imagine that, a smoke that’s good for you …

*Studies from the 1950s and recent research shows plant sterols lower cholesterol.

**Inulin contains dietary fiber, increases the body’s absorption of calcium and may have beneficial effects on bacteria in the digestive track including providing some protection from bacterial infections. It is also suspected to cause food allergies in some people. It is an ingredient in many foods where it may be used as a fat or sugar substitute. It is filling and tastes sweet but is not absorbed into the blood.

Feeding and other inter-species relationships Associated with Tussilago farfara:

Coltsfoot is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including The Gothic and Small Angle Shades. The Coltsfoot is also worked by the honey bee (apis mellifera mellifera), this species provided a lot of pollen for the honey bee.

leaf is galled by aecia Puccinia poarum – a rust fungus (Uredinales: Pucciniaceae) Stubbs, F.B. (Editor), 1986leaf is mined by larva Phytomyza tussilaginis – a leaf-mining fly (Diptera: Agromyzidae) Spencer, K.A., 1972 [mine linear, initially narrow, widening up to 3mm at end, generally long and often forming a secondary blotch]leaf is mined by larva Acidia cognata – a gall fly (Diptera: Tephritidae) White, I.M., 1988leaf is mined by larva Trypeta zoe – a gall fly (Diptera: Tephritidae) White, I.M., 1988leaf is mined by larva Trypeta zoe – a gall fly (Diptera: Tephritidae) White, I.M., 1988leaf is mined by larva Vidalia cornuta – a gall fly (Diptera: Tephritidae) White, I.M., 1988leaf is grazed by nocturnal larva Tenthredo mandibularis – a sawfly (Hymenoptera: Tenthredinidae) Benson, R.B., 1952

Species composition of hedgerows and verges have an infinite variety where not only are no 2 the same, but they are different every 100 yards or sometimes every few yards.