“Modest” explains the first adventuresome blossoms of the tiny yellow dandelion mimic we call coltsfoot. As April settles in, where there may only have been a few golden yellow flowers hugging the ground in March, masses now appear along the banks of gravel roads. Along some roads and waste places, stream banks, and damp places, coltsfoot may even rival dandelions.
It is difficult finding a plant with more regional or folk names. I found a nearly endless list (as names go) in Jack Sanders’ The Secrets of Wildflowers published in 2003 by The Lyons Press: He lists “coughwort, horsefoot, horsehoof, dovedock, sowfoot, colt-herb, hoofs, cleats, ass’s-foot, bull’s-foot, foalfoot, folswort, ginger, clayweed (reflecting the habitat it likes), butter-bur, and dummy weed.” We will settle for coltsfoot!
Sometimes old-time scientific names give a clue for its use, and in this case, Tussilago farfara (Tussis is Latin for cough – like Robitussin).
Both the coltsfoot and the dandelion are immigrants, or more accurately, introduced by early Colonists from Europe. Both were cultivated upon arrival for food and medicine, with coltsfoot winning as a vital medicinal. It was the pharmacy of the 18th and 19th centuries, and its primary value was an ingredient in cough drops and cough syrup. also providing relief for asthma, Phlebitis (inflammation of a vein), insect stings and bites, piles, diarrhea, and more. Today, there are more reliable forms of relief. And modern science cautions the overuse of the plant.
If you study the growth of this Old-World plant, you may notice that as the flowers fade away, the leaves begin to develop, first with fine hairs to protect them from possibly chilly nights. As summer progresses, the hairs, no longer needed, are shed. The work of the large leaves is to manufacture food to be stored in the roots as starch. Early observers, including this writer, thought the flowers were a different plant from the leaves.
While not a native, this plant is a natural to move from roadside to a corner of the garden in bottomless containers. Like other members of the daisy family, these flowers will provide for early pollinators like bees. And because they spread by underground roots, bottomless pots or containers will keep them contained. I often look for coltsfoot along gravel (dirt) roads and am rarely discouraged.