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Coltsfoot: The First Spring Flower
There’s a wildflower that blooms each year before the snowdrops and crocus: coltsfoot! This tiny yellow flower that looks deceptively like a dandelion is the first bloom we find here in the Catskills every spring. These little flowers have an interesting history, including medicinal uses in the past… but you wouldn’t want to try eating them now! Let’s learn more:
Coltsfoot is slightly smaller than a dandelion, with about a 3/4 inch diameter, but otherwise it’s nearly identical. It grows on a thin, stringy stalk with no leaves. The leaves develop later in the spring and summer after the flower dies back.
With its bright yellow bloom, coltsfoot stands out from the dead leaves and snow. It grows close to the ground in ditches and on sunny banks. It can also be found in fields and near streams, but we usually find it along the road first.
You might miss it if you’re driving, but if you look while walking or jogging you’re likely to see one. And once you find one, you generally see many!
They usually show up in March or April and seem to bloom about a week before snowdrops.
Coltsfoot is a member of the daisy family, just like a dandelion. The scientific name for it is “Tussilago Farfara.” The term “coltsfoot” comes from the fact that its leaves, once they appear, look like… a colt’s foot.
Like many plants and insects around here, coltsfoot isn’t native. It is widespread in Europe, Asia, and North Africa and was brought here by settlers. According to the North American Wildlife Guide (an invaluable resource in our house), it was once so widely loved for its herbal qualities that the leaf was the symbol of many apothecary shops in Europe.
As nice as it is to see when we’re flower-starved, it’s not well-liked – it made the noxious weed list in 46 states! So try not to go around propagating it.
Past Uses for Coltsfoot
Coltsfoot was used in herbal teas for respiratory ailments in the past, but you wouldn’t want to try it now. The plants have lots of nasty salt and dirt from the roads on them. Also, coltsfoot has toxins that may cause liver damage, blood clots, and some forms of cancer. No thanks!
Unfortunately, just like other early spring flowers (and dandelions), coltsfoot doesn’t last long when picked and put in a vase. It wilts and dies quickly. But that’s okay, because it’s fun to just look at the sunny little faces on a bank when walking on a nice March or April day.
This is a nice, easy-to-spot weed that sits pretty on the side of the road, but can you identify your much less pleasant garden weeds?