I haven’t checked with an optometrist, but I may have a winter-related vision problem. When five or six months of winter-white finally give way to a mostly brown world each early spring, my eyeballs ache for something bright in the landscape. That’s probably why I plant a few additional crocus bulbs in the yard each fall, and why I search out early-blooming native wildflowers like bloodroot and spring beauty.
But what thrills me most is how clumps of bright yellow coltsfoot flowers emerge, long before their leaves come out, from muddy roadside ditches and rail embankments. Coltsfoot is native to Europe and Asia, but has naturalized throughout North America. Coltsfoot flowers look a bit like small dandelions, but without leaves. You tend to see them in places where soil has been disturbed. Maybe it’s the contrast in color or their audacity at blooming so early, but these flowers do a great deal to dispel my winter fatigue.
Many non-native plants came here accidentally, but coltsfoot was likely planted by early settlers because of its history as a medicinal plant. We don’t know if coltsfoot cheered up European settlers at winter’s end, but we do know that they used it to treat coughs and cold during winter’s icy grip. Its botanical species name is Tussilago, derived from the Latin word for cough. Its common name comes from the fact that its leaves, which emerge as the flowers die back, have a shape similar to a horse’s hoof.
Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder (think Socrates, but slightly less ancient) treated his asthma by inhaling the smoke of dried coltsfoot leaves and flowers. In an ironic and tragic twist, Pliny died of smoke inhalation during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. There was a period of time in Europe when the coltsfoot flower was the symbol for an apothecary. And following a tradition that dates back thousands of years, modern Chinese still use coltsfoot in commercial cough syrups.
It’s important to note that no herbal remedy should be used without first consulting a licensed medical professional. In fact there is concern about the safety of coltsfoot in some quarters. In a 1999 study at the University of Iowa, researchers documented an increase in liver cancer among rats ingesting large doses of coltsfoot. However, because the Iowa study concluded coltsfoot’s health risk was due to one particular compound it (the plant, not the study) contained, some German researchers are trying to develop a strain free of that chemical.
Making cough syrup from coltsfoot requires supervision, but using it as a tonic for the spirit need not involve doctors. I encourage everyone to check out these splashy early-blooming flowers. You can’t overdose on eye candy.
Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.