Welcome to this first herb of the month, for February 2011. I dreamt of this plant a few weeks ago and what better place to begin than with one of the first herbs to flower in spring. In my dream I saw Coltsfoot’s pretty, bright yellow flowers emerging from the dark, damp earth, through the rotting leaves of winter, as though welcoming back the first warmth of the Sun.
One of Coltsfoot’s common names is ‘Son before Father’ and this denotes its unusual method of growth , with the flowers appearing with the first fine weather in early spring, and the leaves coming only after the flowers have faded. The single flowers are a little similar to those of Dandelion (both plants belong to the Compositae family), but they are smaller and their stems are distinctive, being cloaked in pinkish woolly scales. The name Coltsfoot, and other country names like Horsehoof and Foal’s foot, describe the hoof-like shape of the leaves, which are mid-green and smooth on top and covered with white down underneath. The leaves are similar and can be mistaken for those of Butterbur, but these are considerably larger and have grey down on the underside.
Coltsfoot is a very common plant, which is fond of damp areas such as riverbanks and ditches, happy on both sandy or clay soils. It also colonises waste land and can be a ‘weed’ on arable land. It grows throughout Europe and North Asia, and followed the settlers to North America.
The Latin name for Coltsfoot is Tussilago farfara, which means ‘to drive away cough’ and Coltsfoot is the cough remedy par excellence, whose use goes back to ancient times. It is a mild non-toxic herb, suitable for domestic use, including the treatment of children and babies. Many proprietary herbal cough syrups contain coltsfoot and it was once prepared as a herbal sweetmeat, which was sold as ‘Coltsfoot Rock’.
Gathering my own herbs from the wild is a great delight and medicines made from fresh plants are always the strongest. It is important to consider sustainability, so I only pick what is needed and only from well-established stocks, taking care not to disturb the root stock and not over-harvest the flowers. I collect them in early spring, and the leaves in late spring or early summer. They can be used fresh, or for later use I dry them on trays or hang them in small bunches out of direct sun light.
A syrup of fresh Coltsfoot flowers is a good preparation for coughs, otherwise a standard infusion can be used for the leaves and flowers.
Coltsfoot is one of our best native respiratory remedies, applicable to both acute and chronic conditions of the lungs. It is soothing and cooling, a specific for hot dry coughs and laryngitis, expectorant and decongestant. Coltsfoot also has a relaxing effect on the lungs, making it a useful aid in constrictive conditions like asthma and whooping cough. Smoking the leaves or inhaling the fumes was a method of treating asthma in the past, and Coltsfoot is still one of the main ingredients in herbal tobacco. Those who have given up smoking, or who have damaged their lungs inhaling other pollutants, will find Coltsfoot cleansing.
Herbs work on many levels of our being, which is a theme I hope to explore in ‘the Herb of the Month’. On the emotional level, Coltsfoot can help us release old stuck emotions and literally help us get it off our chests: one of the gifts of these sunny flowers of Spring.
© Sue Goodwin 2011: web http://www.purplemintwoman.co.uk/