Coltsfoot is a horse of a different color.
This early spring flower resembles a dandelion, but don’t be fooled. Its resemblance is superficial. The round yellow blossom is at first glance a look-alike, but upon inspection you can see some obvious differences.
Coltsfoot has tubular flower petals, while the dandelion’s petals are flatter, rather than round. Coltsfoot also has a hairy stem with red-tinged scales, in contrast to the dandelion’s smooth stem. But the giveaway is the leaves, or lack thereof.
“Filius ante patrem,” translated as “son before father,” says it all. Romans used that name for coltsfoot because they noticed that coltsfoot blooms before its leaves are present. Thus, if you see leaves along with the yellow flower, you have found dandelions (and dandelion greens for your salad). An absence of leaves means you’re likely looking at coltsfoot, whose eventual greens (which resemble, unsurprisingly, the shape of a colt’s foot) emerge only after its seeds set. Clearly, this is a case of placing the cart before the horse!
Coltsfoot is also the earlier bloomer, usually flowering first, and is much less common than the dandelion. On the Island, coltsfoot is found in only a few places, mostly in West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah. I have seen colonies of this plant along the banks and cliffs of south shore beaches; Lucy Vincent is a good bet. This plant clearly enjoys the moist clay soils, which must have given rise to one of its aliases, clayweed.
It’s not a native, though. This plant came to us from Europe and Asia, and is considered invasive in many states, Massachusetts included. Coltsfoot was likely brought to our shores because of its medicinal properties.
“Nature’s best herb for the lungs and her most eminent thoracic,” boasts one source. Pliny the Elder, too, favored coltsfoot. “The smoke of this plant is said to cure, if inhaled deeply through a reed, an inveterate cough, but the patient must take a sip of raisin wine at each inhalation.” In 1785, Cutler, another herbalist, insisted that “the leaves are the basis of the British herb tobacco. They are somewhat austere, bitterish, and mucilaginous to the taste. They have been much used in coughs and consumptive complaints.” French pharmacies painted this flower on their doorpost to advertise their healing expertise.
As noted, coltsfoot’s claim to fame is its ability to manage cough; and its scientific name, Tussilago farfara, translates into “cough dispeller.” Its other aliases include ass’s foot, cough wart, butterbur, tash plant, and horse hoof, all variations on a few themes.
The afflicted are advised to smoke the leaves, drink them as tea, or eat the flowers or roots for relief. I say, not so fast. Recent research has shown that this cure-all can be fatal for some, as it can be a liver toxin. Pregnant women are strongly counseled to avoid its use.
Continuing its similarity to dandelions, coltsfoot’s yellow flowers eventually fade and leave a downy, wispy puff ball in their place. This down, called pappas, will help the plant to disperse its seeds (thus reversing the Roman name for the plant, and putting the pappas before the sun). Winds can carry the pappas and seeds more than nine miles. Sometimes goldfinches will catch these wind-borne wisps and use them to line their nests, and Scottish highlanders were known to use this material to stuff pillows and mattresses.
The next time you see those familiar yellow flowers don’t be so sure-footed about their identity. While there are those that loath the invasive coltsfoot or curse the dandelion lawn intruder, consider that both flowers are seasonal gifts that end winter and put spring’s best foot forward.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.