Coltsfoot – Friendly Neighbourhood Herb

Helps Heal Inflammation of Lungs, Eyes, and Bowels

It’s late March and I’m in front of my computer working on an early draft of this article. Periodically my eyes get tired of staring at the screen and I look out the window to give them a rest. Outside, winter is starting to retreat. March has been colder than usual and I’ve had to endure a whole month of complaints about the weather. People think I’m crazy when I tell them I always feel a bit melancholy when the snow starts melting rapidly at this time of year. Every season has its beauty and lessons to teach us. I’m wondering how long it’s going to be before the next time I’m overwhelmed by the peace and beauty of a clear night with the moonlight sparkling in the snow like a million silvery jewels.

As much as I love all the seasons, I have to admit that I love spring the most. For me there’s nothing like watching the Earth awaken after her long winter sleep. Every year I count down the three cardinal signs of spring. It begins with the rapid lengthening of daylight hours from late February onwards. Then comes the chatter of red-winged blackbirds. They are the first birds to return from their long migration from southern regions. This year they arrived on March 20 where I live. The spring equinox. It must be an auspicious sign! Finally, there are the little yellow faces on the still barren ground: the flowers of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), the first wildflower to bloom in Ontario. On my property they first bloomed on April 4 this year, my youngest son’s birthday (another auspicious sign?). When the coltsfoot blooms, I know that spring has finally arrived.

Coltsfoot and I have a long and close relationship. I remember my elation the first time that I identified it on the Scarborough bluffs. It was the first wildflower that I identified from a field guide. A few weeks later, it was the first herb that I harvested and dried. The following year it was the first herb from which I made a fresh herb tincture. A few years later, another first: coltsfoot was the first flower essence that I made. None of this was planned. It just turned out that way.

Coltsfoot is a European species that has become naturalized throughout much of North America. It grows in moist transition areas, often along the edges of wetlands. Although it can tolerate full sun as long as the soil is relatively moist, it prefers to grow in areas where it gets shade part of the day.

IDENTIFYING COLTSFOOT IN THE WILD

When coltsfoot blooms in the early spring, the first thing we notice is that it doesn’t seem to have any leaves! Its flowers grow singly on reddish, scaly stalks and there are no leaves in sight. The flowers are yellow and remotely resemble those of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), although they are somewhat smaller. Both species are members of the Aster family and they share many other characteristics. Firstly, what appear to be single flowers are actually composite flower heads made up of many tiny flowers. The flower heads of coltsfoot have many ray flowers that grow along the outer edge and produce the “petals” that surround the central disc. The tiny disc flowers are the fertile flowers of the flower head. They initially open along the outer edge of the disc and, as the flower matures, they gradually open towards the centre. When the flowers open, the male stamens mature first, followed by the female pistils. This means that the open flowers closer to the centre of the disc will be in the male reproductive phase, while those closer to the outer edge will be in the female phase.

The bees and flies that pollinate them know this. When they land on the flower head, they usually land on the outer edge of the disc and work their way towards the centre in a spiral pattern. In this way they come in contact with the female flowers first, which they fertilize with pollen from other flowers, then they pick up more pollen from the male flowers. This increases the likelihood that the flowers will be fertilized by pollen from another plant, thereby ensuring greater genetic diversity within the species.

Like dandelion, once the coltsfoot flowers are fertilized, the stalk will bend back towards the ground to protect the developing seeds. The seeds are crowned with a pappus, the feathery parachute-like attachment that allows them to blow away in the wind and spread throughout the landscape. When the seeds mature, the stalk will bend back upright and grow taller than before to help them catch the wind.

It is usually around the time that the flowers are fully fertilized that the coltsfoot leaves finally appear. They are tiny at first, but by late June the blade of the leaf will be 15 centimetres long or more. The leaves are leathery on top, often with a thin downy membrane, and wooly underneath. They are arranged singly in a rosette pattern, growing from a common central point in the ground.

Aside from its many seeds, coltsfoot also spreads via a dense network of underground rhizomes. It tends to form large colonies wherever it grows. It is so successful that it is classified as an invasive weed in many municipalities. It gets its name from the fact that someone thought the shape of its leaf resembles the shape of a colt’s foot. The person must have lived before the invention of eye glasses. It doesn’t look anything like that to me.

MEDICINAL PROPERTIES OF COLTSFOOT

Both the flowers and leaves of coltsfoot are used medicinally. However, unlike most other herbs, the flowers and leaves of coltsfoot must be harvested at different times. We harvest the flowers in the early part of its flowering period, usually in the second or third week of April. The leaves are harvested in late May or early June when they are almost fully grown.

Although the leaves can be dried and used to make a tea, compress or poultice, the flowers are considerably more effective when fresh. They are best made into a fresh flower tincture using 30-35% alcohol with 65-70% water. I prefer to use a 50/50 ratio of flowers to leaves, so I make a fresh tincture of both of them at the appropriate times and combine them together in equal proportions after I press them. To make a tincture, the flowers or leaves should be chopped fairly fine within a couple of hours of being harvested. Fill a wide-mouthed amber jar to the top with the chopped herb material and fill it up with your water alcohol mixture. The jar should be shaken vigorously a couple of times a day for the first week or two, then periodically after that. Store it in a dark place for at least one month, preferably three months or more. Don’t press and filter the tincture until you need to use it. It will keep for many years as long as it is left undisturbed with the herb inside (i.e. don’t open the jar).

Coltsfoot is a valuable medicinal herb. The fresh or dried leaves can be used topically as a compress or poultice. They promote healing and reduce inflammation. They are excellent for abrasions, cuts and other wounds, rashes, and insect bites and stings.

Just as coltsfoot helps to heal and reduce inflammation of the skin, it also has similar actions on the mucus membranes. The dried leaf tea can be cooled to body temperature and used as a douche for vaginal irritations, or as an eyewash for irritated eyes. If you use the tea as an eyewash, it should first be filtered through an unbleached paper coffee filter to remove any tiny particles of herb material that might irritate your eyes. In both cases, if the irritation is due to infection, coltsfoot should be combined with a good antimicrobial herb such as pot marigold flowers (Calendula officinalis) or barberry bark (Berberis vulgaris). Purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.) is also effective, but the root is not recommended for use in the eyes. (However, it is the leaves of purple coneflower that are best used for the treatment of conditions of the skin and mucus membranes.)

The dried leaf tea, or preferably a tincture made from the fresh flowers and leaves of coltsfoot in equal proportions, can also be used internally. Used in this way its healing action on the mucus membranes makes it excellent for inflammatory conditions of the digestive tract. It is helpful for gastritis, gastric and duodenal ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and colitis.

Coltsfoot is an amazing respiratory herb. It is best known for its benefits for the lungs. It helps to loosen up mucus in the bronchial passages and stimulates expectoration, thereby reducing lung congestion. It is excellent for coughs, colds, influenza, bronchitis, whooping cough, asthma and pneumonia. It also benefits the nasal passages, used for conditions characterized by a thin watery discharge. As an herb for the mucus membranes, coltsfoot is also beneficial for sore throats.

For infectious lung conditions, coltsfoot has additional benefits. It stimulates the immune system, reduces fever and mildly improves lymphatic drainage. It also reduces the body’s allergic response somewhat, a plus for allergy-related respiratory conditions.

Coltsfoot is also beneficial for urinary tract irritations and infections. Once more it should be combined with a good antimicrobial herb if the condition is due to infection.

CAVEAT RE: TOXICITY

If you read about coltsfoot in any recent books, sooner or later you are bound to come across overblown warnings about the toxicity of this herb. This is because coltsfoot contains minute amounts of constituents called pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are liver toxins. These alkaloids are common in the Borage family and in a few tribes (sub-families) of the Aster family. Although the presence of these constituents is a definite concern, coltsfoot is a very safe herb if used correctly. As usual, the reductionistic, medical-model researchers have been measuring the toxicity of herbs with a different ruler than the one they use for pharmaceuticals. There are many drugs readily available on the market today that are considerably less safe than coltsfoot. In spite of this, the use of this herb is restricted in many countries.

Having said that, there is a risk of liver toxicity if this herb is misused. Coltsfoot should not be used by pregnant or nursing women, children under three years of age, anyone who has a serious liver condition or is regularly using any pharmaceuticals that are known to be toxic to the liver. For everyone else this herb should only be used in formulations with other herbs. In formulations, the minimum proportion of coltsfoot to ensure its effectiveness is 20%, the maximum proportion to ensure safety is 33%. A proportion of 25% is pretty typical for this herb. When coltsfoot is used at acute dosages, it should only be used for 2-3 weeks. At chronic dosages it should only be used for 2-3 months.

All of this might sound pretty scary to some people. You might ask why bother to use coltsfoot at all? Why not use other herbs that are safer? The truth is that it is very effective and very safe if you observe the restrictions that I have indicated above. It is also very common and readily available. Everyone responds to herbs differently and some people are more sensitive to some kinds of toxicity than others. However, I always believe in resting on the side of caution. The recommendations that I have given you are well within the safety range for this herb for self-medication. In my practice I sometimes recommend coltsfoot for significantly longer periods of time. This should only be done under the guidance of a qualified herbalist or natural health professional trained in the use of Western herbs.

For acute health conditions, formulations containing coltsfoot are best taken six to eight times per day, for chronic conditions three to four times. The individual dose is one cup of tea (one tablespoon of total herb content infused for 15-20 minutes) or four to six droppers (3-5 ml) of 1:5 fresh herb tincture formulations. For over-the-counter preparations, use the recommended dosage.

Coltsfoot is another one of our friendly neighbourhood herbs. It is so common that it would be difficult to over-harvest. Nevertheless, like all herbs it should be harvested carefully and with respect. Whether we want to use it or just enjoy its beauty, it’s also a good excuse to get out there and enjoy the great awakening of spring.

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