After many months (five-plus where I live) of winter whiteness, it’s a relief to watch the snow melt at last. We’re always grateful, even though the loss of snow cover gives way to a mostly brown world: brown grass, sand everywhere – even brown pine needles along the roads.
Not to mention the leaves, trash, or dog poop that was mercifully hidden under the snow. Those few sepia-toned weeks after the white stuff disappears and before trees and grass wake up can be visually bleak.
That’s probably why I’m always so happy to see bright yellow coltsfoot flowers emerging in clumps from muddy roadside ditches, rail embankments, and other neglected places. These tiny sunbursts do much to dispel my winter eye fatigue. Coltsfoot flowers look kind of like mini-dandelions – the same color and structure. The odd thing is that they emerge before any leaves come out.
Although native to Europe and Asia, coltsfoot has naturalized throughout North America. Many non-native plants came here accidentally, but this one was likely planted by settlers because of its value as a medicinal plant. We don’t know if coltsfoot cheered up early Europeans during the post-winter “brown season,” but we do know they used it extensively to treat coughs.
Coltsfoot’s genus name is Tussilago, derived from the Latin word for cough. Its common name stems from the fact that its leaves, which emerge as the flowers wither, resemble a horse’s hoof. 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 flower was the symbol for an apothecary, or early pharmacy – the blossom was virtually synonymous with healing. And today, following a tradition that dates back thousands of years, some Chinese people still use commercial cough syrup made with coltsfoot.
It’s common to assume that plant-based remedies are 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, please consult your doctor before using herbal remedies. (In other words, please don’t sue me.)
Speaking of legal liability, there has been concern in recent times about the safety of ingesting coltsfoot. Researchers have documented an increase in liver cancer among rats ingesting coltsfoot. To be fair to coltsfoot (if not the lab animals), these rats were fed a diet of up to 16% coltsfoot flowers, every day for 600 days. The takeaway message: Don’t eat this much coltsfoot, folks. Problem solved.
However, the same study concluded that the cancer risk was due to a single compound called senkirkine that it (the plant, not the study) produced, Last I heard, German researchers were working to develop a coltsfoot strain that’s largely free of that chemical.
Making cough syrup from coltsfoot is best done under the supervision of an herbalist. On the other hand, using it as a tonic for the spirit need not involve medical professionals. I encourage everyone to watch for these splashy yellow flowers in the early spring.
Photo of coltsfoot courtesy Wikimedia user Andreas Trepte.