Herb to Know: Coltsfoot

| April/May 1999

  • Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.

• Tussilago farfara
• (Tuss-ih-LAY-go FAR-fuh-ruh)
• Family Compositae
• Perennial herb

The glow of coltsfoot’s cheerful golden flowers along roadsides and stream banks is a sure sign of spring. Though too invasive to be welcome in most gardens, coltsfoot once was highly esteemed for its ability to relieve coughs and asthma.

The genus Tussilago (Latin for “cough dispeller”) comprises either one or fifteen species of perennial herbs, depending on which botanist you consult. Coltsfoot (T. farfara) is native to Europe, western and northern Asia, and North Africa. In North America, it is found in the northeastern United States and adjacent Canada west to Minnesota and south to Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky. It is hardy in Zones 3 to 7.

The 13/8-inch-wide flower heads on thick, scaly, reddish 6-inch stalks appear before the leaves (accounting for the alternate common name son-before-the-father, or filius ante patrem in Latin, as it was known during the Middle Ages). The flower head looks much like that of a dandelion but has a central disk like that of a daisy. Each narrow, petallike ray flower has a pistil (female organ) but no stamens (male organs). Each disk flower has both stamens and a pistil, but the latter is nonfunctional. The flowers, which open in sunshine and close in cloudy weather and at night, are usually pollinated by butterflies and bees.

Later on, rosettes of 6- to 8-inch-wide stalked green leaves arise from the creeping rhizomes. Some early botanists, observing the leafless flowers in one place and the flowerless foliage in another, concluded that they represented separate species. The irregular-toothed leaves apparently reminded many of animals’ feet: besides coltsfoot, common names include bullsfoot, ass’s foot (pas d’âne in French), and horsehoof. The sixteenth-century English herbalist John Gerard asserts, however, that the specific name farfara comes from a resemblance of the leaf shape to that of white poplar, “which was named of the Antients Farfarus.” Both the upper and lower leaf surfaces are at first covered with hairs, but those on top fall off as the leaf expands. The mature leaves are smooth and green above, felty and white below. The soft hairs, when wrapped in a rag dipped in saltpeter and dried in the sun, have been used as tinder. The entire plant may grow to a height of 20 inches.

The seed heads are fluff balls like those of dandelions. European goldfinches and American indigo buntings use this down to line their nests, and it is said that Scots Highlanders once used it to stuff pillows.

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