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Coltsfoot: The First Spring Flower
There’s a wildflower that blooms each year before the snowdrops and crocus: the coltsfoot plant! These tiny yellow dandelion-like flowers are the first blooms we find here in the Catskills every spring. The 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 flower head, but otherwise it’s nearly identical. It grows on a thin, stringy stalk with no leaves. The leaves develop later in the spring after the flowers die back and last until summer.
With its bright yellow flowers, coltsfoot stands out from the dead leaves and snow. It grows close to the ground in ditches, forest edges, and on sunny stream banks. It can also be found in fields, but we usually find it along sections of the road that get lots of sun 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 yellow flower heads popping up!
They usually show up in late March or April and seem to bloom about a week before snowdrops.
Once they’re done flowering, you’ll just see leaves until they too die back in early summer.
The coltsfoot plant is a member of the aster (or daisy) family, just like a dandelion. The scientific name for it is “Tussilago Farfara L.” The term “coltsfoot” comes from the fact that its leaves, once they appear, look like… a colt’s foot. Naturally, it’s also known by countless other equine common names, like horsefoot, foalfoot, foalswort… you get the idea.
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 early 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! It’s also considered an invasive species in many northeast states, including Connecticut, Maine, and New Jersey. Definitely don’t go around propagating it!
Past Uses for Coltsfoot
Coltsfoot was well-known for its medicinal properties for many years. The “Tussis” part in its scientific name means cough, a reference to what health benefits it was thought to have in the past. It was used to make coltsfoot tea, a herbal remedy for respiratory ailments, but you wouldn’t want to try it now. The plants have lots of nasty salt and dirt from the roads and streambeds on them. Also, coltsfoot can cause adverse effects, since it 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, even if we do know that it’s invasive.
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?