Laura Dean Bennett
Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, is a tiny, bright yellow-orange flower whose bloom graces the sides of the road and peeks out from under the snow in early spring.
The first ones I saw this year in Pocahontas County seemed to pop up over-night, seemingly right on cue, the day before Easter.
Coltsfoot blossoms are often mistaken for dandelions.
In fact, they have a lot in common with dandelions.
They are both plants of historic medicinal significance and both are considered by the less-enligh- tened among us, to be weeds.
For centuries, coltsfoot has been a very popular folk remedy for coughs and bronchial congestion.
It is native to Europe and northern Asia, and was naturalized in North America, having been brought here as a medicinal herb by the colonists and early American settlers.
Favoring moist, sandy places, coltsfoot is prevalent in the northeastern and north central United States and southern Canada.
Coltsfoot is a common plant, which, like dandelion, besides being found along roadsides and in open areas, is known for its unwelcome ability to take over a yard if left unchecked.
Depending on where they are found, the flowers are gathered in late winter – at lower elevations and latitudes – and early spring – at higher elevations, like Pocahontas County.
Their leaves, which, oddly enough, appear after the plant blooms, are gathered in summer.
The fact that the leaves come after the blossom is how coltsfoot got its old, common Latin name, “Filius ante patrem,” or “the son before the father.”
When I was young, my mother told me coltsfoot was so named because it sprang up in the hoof prints of newborn foals, and I have always loved thinking it is so.
But the real reason for the its name is the fact that its leaves are hoof-shaped.
After the flower heads of the coltsfoot plant wither, its broad, hoof-shaped, green leaves appear.
The dried leaves and flower heads of Tussilago farfara have long been used to make medicine for coughs or sore throats.
One of the first recorded uses of this plant as a cough and chest remedy was in ancient Greece.
The famous Greek philosopher Pliny swore by it as a treatment for asthma.
In ancient Greece, the coltsfoot flower was the symbol for the residence of an herbalist.
It was also a universally prescribed medicine in Europe, where healers painted its golden flowers on their doorposts and shop signs.
In England, in the days before most people could read and write, shops would identify themselves with symbols – three golden balls for the pawnbroker, a red and white striped pole for the barber, the yellow coltsfoot for the apothecary.
Its botanical name reflects its medicinal application in that Tussilago comes from the Latin “tussis,” meaning cough.
It is a perennial member of the family Asteraceae – relatives of the aster, sunflower and daisy.
Because the leaves and flowers contain mucilage, they can be used to make infusions, washes and poultices to sooth minor skin irritations.
The leaves, blossoms and the roots are ingredients in a large number of proprietary tea mixtures that are marketed in Europe and China for treating throat irritations, chest problems, such as bronchitis and coughing.
In China, coltsfoot is classified as a “warming” herb that helps relieve coughing and wheezing.
Even today, Chinese pharmaceutical manufacturers use coltsfoot in commercial cough syrups.
It was said to have anti-inflammatory and immuno-stimulant qualities.
It combines well with licorice, thyme, and black cherry and was made into homemade throat lozenges in Europe and by American colonists that some people consumed like candy.
A poultice made from the fresh leaves was said to be effective for healing when applied externally to ulcers, sores, and other slow-to-heal wounds.
Besides being used as an herbal medicine, coltsfoot can also be eaten.
The fresh flowers may be tossed into a spring salad for an added bit of color and flavor.
Its flowers can be dried and diced up to be added to pancakes or fritters.
Young leaves can be added to soups or stews – although the leaves have a bitter taste, so it is recommended that they be boiled and rinsed before adding them to food.
The dried and burnt leaves have been used as a salt substitute.
An aromatic tea is made from the fresh or dried leaves and flowers.
And like dandelions, coltsfoot can also be made into wine.
Coltsfoot syrup was used to make therapeutic sweets – used like throat lozenges – such as “Coltsfoot Rock,” a patented British confection created by Stockley’s Sweets
While the ingredients of Coltsfoot Rock is a trade secret, homemade coltsfoot infused sweets have been made by starting with a potent decoction of coltsfoot to which is added brown sugar and honey that is heated to the point of caramelization.
This is then poured onto a greased surface or waxed paper, shaped or cut and allowed to cool and set.
The candy is then wrapped and stored.
This ready-to-eat coltsfoot candy can be taken at the first hint of a sore throat or cough to help prevent it from worsening.
A recipe for a soothing herbal throat lozenge
15 cups clean coltsfoot leaves, without any stems
1 lb. granulated sugar
2 cups corn syrup
3 Tbsp. butter
Pinch of baking soda
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
Rinse the coltsfoot leaves well, then put into a large pot with 5 cups of cold water.
Bring them to a boil for three minutes, then add the sugar, corn syrup, and the butter. Cook until this sugar mixture reaches the “hard boil stage”or when one drop in cold water turns hard.
At that point, remove from the heat, add the baking soda, put it into an electric mixer and beat until it starts to get stiff.
Oil an eight or nine inch square pan, pour in the firm sugar mixture, and allow to harden.
Break the hardened material into candy size pieces and use them as throat lozenges.
Use no more than four or five a day.
To be on the safe side, please consult a medical professional before consuming any homemade herbal remedies.
Of course, you needn’t consume the cheery little coltsfoot that you see along the lane to enjoy their message.
Snow or no snow, like the crocus, the forsythia and the daffodil, coltsfoot is proof spring is here!
Laura Dean Bennett may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org