Coltsfoot blooming in a pot in Bonnefont garden. The scaly stems and bright yellow blossoms of this early-spring-blooming member of the daisy family emerge well before the foliage; the hoof-shaped leaves appear only after the flowers have set seed. This notoriously invasive Eurasian species is best grown in a container. Photograph by Carly Still
Tussilago farfara, known in the Middle Ages under the Latin names ungula caballina (”horse hoof”) and pes pulli (”foal’s foot”), is still called coltsfoot, ass’s foot, or bull’s foot in English, pas-de-poulain in French, pie d’asino in Italian, and hufflatich in German. These names all derive from the fancied resemblance of the young leaf to the foot of a quadruped. See an image of the plant in leaf. A slideshow of images of Tussilago farfara in all stages of growth is available at Arkive.org.
A plant of roadside verges and waste grounds in its homelands, coltsfoot readily accommodates itself to a variety of habitats. Brought to North America by early settlers as a medicinal herb of ancient standing, it was well established here by the nineteenth century. The otherwise naked margins of many roadsides in upstate New York and other parts of the northeastern U.S. and Canada are bright with coltsfoot in March/April. (The U.S.D.A. Plants Database includes a map of the range of this introduced species. For a full account of coltsfoot’s occurrence, botanical and ecological characteristics, and management, see the U.S. Forest Service Plant Database.
Detail of coltsfoot flower. Tussilago farfara is a member of the Asteraceae. This very large botanical family was formerly known as the Compositae, because the flowers are composite, consisting of small, tightly compacted disk flowers at the center, surrounded by ray flowers, or petals. Photograph by Carly Still
Despite a long life in Western herbal medicine, modern chemical analyses have shown that Tussilago contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids that have a toxic effect on human liver tissue. The sale of coltsfoot was banned in Germany for this reason, although a clonal form with undetectable levels of the damaging alkaloids, Tussilago farfara ‘Wein,’ was subsequently developed and registered.
The ancient herbalist Dioscorides remarks on the ephemeral nature of this spring-blooming plant, which he calls bechion: “. . . it doth quickly cast off both ye flower and ye stalk, whence some have thought ye herb to be without stalk and & without flower” (De Materia Medica, Book III. 126). He recommends the smoke of the dried leaves, taken in through a reed, for the treatment of dry cough; those who suffer from “Orthopnea” (breathlessness while lying down) should gape at the smoke and swallow it down for relief. Dioscorides, who knew the plant in all its phases, prescribed the use of the leaves only; his contemporary, the Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder, was among those who believed coltsfoot to be without stem, flower, or seed. Pliny recommends that both the roots and the leaves of bechion, also known to him as tussilago, be burned and inhaled for cough, maintaining that a sip of raisin wine must be taken with each inhalation (Historia Naturalis, XXVI, 30).
Hildegard of Bingen asserts that coltsfoot is hot in action; she omits any discussion of its use as an antitussive, and speaks only of its value, when mixed with plantain root and mistletoe from a pear tree and taken in wine, in softening the liver of a person who has overindulged in many foods (Physica, Chapter CCXI).
According to the fifteenth-century herbal Hortus Sanitatis, coltsfoot is cold and moist in the second degree, a somewhat surprising classification for a remedy which one would expect to be warming and drying in action, given its prescription as a treatment for colds and coughs, a poultice for boils, and an aid to digestion for patients of a phlegmatic complexion. (For more on the humoral theory of medicine, and the qualities and degrees assigned to medicinal plants, see “Cool, Cooler, Coolest,” July 27, 2012.)
The sixteenth-century herbalist John Gerard repeats the ancient recommendation as an inhalant, and also mentions that a decoction of the green leaves, or a syrup made from them, is good for coughs “that proceedeth from a thin rheume.” Coltsfoot leaves were included in “pectoral ales,” i.e., herbal beers brewed as cough medicines, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This famous antitussive and demulcent still had a place as a cough remedy in twentieth-century pharmacopeias. Richard Mabey, in his botanical and cultural compendium Flora Britannica, includes oral testimony by an informant with a sweet tooth who resorted to a rock candy flavored with the herb and known as coltsfoot rock (see image), because it was obtained from the chemists as a cough preparation rather than a confection, and so was not rationed in wartime.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.
Mabey, Richard. Flora Britannica. London: Chatto & Windus, 1996.
Pliny. Natural History, Vol. VII, Books XXIV–XXVII. Translated by W. H. S. Jones. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1956, reprinted 1966, revised 1980.
Throop, Priscilla, transl. Hildegard von Bingen’sPhysica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.