Thursday, 19 March 2009


I spotted my first Coltsfoot flowers of the year today. They were at Hardy Farm on a patch of land adjacent to the river and near to Jackson’s Boat Bridge. Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is an early (but, as we have seen, by no means the earliest) spring flower. It is a member of the botanical family Asteraceae and is, hence, related to Daisies and Dandelions. It is a plant of rough grassland and waste places.

The 17th Century herbalist, John Gerard wrote an excellent description of Coltsfoot in his ‘Herbal’ (1636):

Tussilago or Fole-foot hath many white and long creeping roots, somewhat fat; from which rise up naked stalkes (in the beginning of March and Aprill) about a spanne long, bearing at the top yellow floures, which change into down and are caried away with the winde: when the stalke and seed is perished, there appeare springing out of the earth many broad leaves, greene above, and next the ground of a white hoarie or grayish colour, fashioned like an Horse foot; for which cause it was called Fole-foot and Horse-hoofe: seldome or never shall you find leaves and floures at once, but the flours are past before the leaves come out of the ground ...

Gerard also described “The Vertues” (i.e. the medicinal uses) of Coltsfoot:

A decoction made of the greene leaves and roots, or else a syrup thereof, is good for the cough that proceedeth of a thin rheume.
The green leaves of Fole-foot pound with hony, do cure and heale inflammations.
The fume of the dried leaves taken through a funnell or tunnell, burned upon coles, effectually helpeth those that are troubled with shortnesse of breath, and fetch their wind thicke and often.
Being taken in a manner as they taketh Tobaco, it mightily prevaileth against the diseases aforesaid.

Long before Gerard’s day Coltsfoot had been used in cough remedies and, generally, for diseases of the bronchial tract. The first part of the scientific name, Tussilago, is from tussis – the Latin word for cough. I also believe that the second part of the name, farfara is onomatopoeic – that is it is supposed to represent the sound of someone coughing.
It is still possible to buy ‘Coltsfoot Rock’ as a cough remedy in the UK, but in Central Europe, where they take their herbal remedies very seriously, it is often present in cough syrups. A few years ago I was on holiday in Slovenia (once the northernmost republic of Yugoslavia, but now an independent country). I had had a chest infection and had been left with a persistent cough which was spoiling my holiday. Eventually, I went to a local pharmacist who sold me a bottle of sticky, brown cough medicine. I couldn’t read most of the label (which, of course, was in Slovenian) but I could read the scientific names of the plants (i.e. plant extracts) that it contained; these included Primula veris (Cowslips) and Tussilago farfara. This concoction worked just fine and the cough went away.
I don’t know if anyone these days actually smokes dried Coltsfoot leaves as a remedy for asthma; it seems unlikely – but you never know!

Dave Bishop, March 2009

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