Does anyone have an Anishinaabemowin word for coltsfoot? Coltsfoot is another settler import to North America with a longstanding edible and medicinal history. But keep reading because things have gotten complicated due to health concerns about one of the constituents.
Coltsfoot has gone out of vogue for a couple reasons. Firstly, antihistamines and new cough syrups surpassed “coughwort” in popularity. And more recently, there’s the presence of PAs/pyrrolizidine alkaloids, possibly toxic and carcinogenic, which you can read more about in our comfrey post. And please do check up on it before deciding whether or not to try this plant internally. You may want some degree of caution or you may decide the warning is overblown. (Your beer may have more PAs…) And as you’ll find toward the end of this post, there’s at least one variety developed without the PAs. I haven’t yet heard of comfrey varieties without PAs but I’d like to see it. There could be a comeback!
Around here I’ve only found coltsfoot in dry gravelly roadsides, in small dense colonies. You might find it along sandy banks too. You might think the cluster is springs first dandelions from a distance and then you notice the strangeness.. the leaves are not out:
It looks Martian; the flowers on this plant whither before the leaves pop out.
Edible Uses of Coltsfoot
Whatever you decide about PAs, it’s probably best not to eat coltsfoot in large quantities. And as a precaution, avoid if pregnant. Be sure to not collect this on the roadside or near polluted water where it’s likely contaminated.
Young flowering stems can be boiled and taste something like fiddleheads. The flowers can be used as a substitution in dandelion wine. The leaves which come out after flowering can be prepared like spinach, but they become fuzzy with age.
My favorite edible use is that the leaves can be burnt to an ash and used as a salt substitute. Dry rolled up balls of leaves in the sun for about a week then roast on a hot stone until it becomes a white salty ash. Flavoring certainly isn’t “large quantities”.
Another flavoring use: there’s a hard candy called “Coltsfoot Rock” made from the extract. You can find it here. Stockley’s Sweets, based in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, England are the only ones who make it and you can buy it from their website. The flavor of coltsfoot could be considered an acquired taste.
Medicinal Uses of Coltsfoot
Coltsfoot is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Antispasmodic, Astringent, Emollient, Expectorant, and Sedative. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
Common usage includes the flowers, leaves or even roots used to relieve coughing, perhaps dried leaves in a tea. An alternative name for coltsfoot is “coughwort”. And the Latin name tussilago means something akin to cough dispeller. Fresh leaves can be made into drops or cough syrup. It was a cough syrup at the pharmacy back in the day. Herbalists often mix it with elder, horehound, licorice or marshmallow.
Smoking the leaves same as mullein is another way it’s used. Both these herbs are traditionally tops for lungs. They are even mixed together in “British Herb Tobacco” used for among other things asthma and bronchitis. In Stalking the Healthful Herb, Euell Gibbons gives his own mixture recipe for coughs and wheezing: 8 oz. coltsfoot and 2 oz. each mullein, bearberry, and deer tongue leaves plus 1 oz. each wild thyme, peppermint, rose petals and sassafras-root bark. Many insist ANY smoke is bad for the lungs because all smoke is irritating. Others insist that the medicinal aspect will outweigh any irritation. For asthmatics, there are studies about coltsfoot reducing platelet-activating factor to look into. (PAF is a protein that triggers the narrowing of airway passages.) As always, it’s a good idea to work with professionals to develop your asthma toolkit and establish the quantity and duration of treatment, which in coltsfoots case will likely be limited if it is used at all due to the alkaloids.
Alternative Uses of Horsehoof
Goldfinches like the seedy tuft of hairs for lining their nests and people took a cue from them for stuffing mattresses and pillows.
If you can find tussilago farfara ‘Wien‘ seeds it’s a PA free coltsfoot developed in Europe. Since this plant isn’t native here and spreads aggressively, if you want to grow it in a greenhouse situation you might as well try to find the version with no detectable pas. (If you have concerns about PAs anyway.) Let us know where you buy it from in the comments if you will!
I’m surprised coltsfoot doesn’t have its own Ontario Invasive Plant Council bulletin. It’s taken over many swaths of roadside here. I currently have it tagged “naturalized”, but if it gets more on the radar that may change.
Like with comfrey, there’s a debate around the potentially toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids found in the plant. Not consuming it in large quantities, or over long duration, and avoiding when pregnant are baseline guidelines.
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.
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