Coltsfoot

Tussilago farfara

Coltsfoot: seed head
Coltsfoot: seed head

Coltsfoot. This introduced species is a very early spring wildflower. The flowers appear before the leaves are formed, usually in March and April.  Someone informed me that an old-time common name for this plant was “Son Before Father”, because the flower comes up before the leaves fully develop. Gotta love those common names–this one is perfect :)!

The small, 1-inch “flowers” of coltsfoot are borne on tall stalks lined with reddish scales. Because the flowers emerge well before the leaves, the sparse arrangement of small flowers on thick, leafless stalks gives the plant a rather prehistoric look.  Luckily, both the disk flowers and the ray flowers of this composite are a bright sunshiny yellow, so their showiness makes up for the lack of other features at this time. It is worth noting that the flowers close up completely on cloudy days and also at night.

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Coltsfoot leaf emerging in the shape of a “colt’s hoof print”

Later in the season, certainly by May, you will be hard pressed to find this bright yellow wildflowers anymore. Instead you will see the white seed heads of the plant still lining roadsides and waste places around Virginia. At first glance, the fluffy, silky seed heads look a bit like cotton balls. That’s because each flower is packed with up to 150 “plumed” seeds; each seed is attached to a feathery structure that enables it to become airborne in the wind. (See the photo below.) At this time of year, small birds take notice and use the silk of spent coltsfoot flowers to line their nests. Sweet!

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The plumed seeds of coltsfoot sparkle in the setting sun

What about the leaves? When they finally do appear, the basal leaves of coltsfoot have long stalks and can grow from two to six inches across; the leaves are lobed and toothed. Coltsfoot plants can form a dense ground cover on disturbed sites. Once colonies form, they can be hard to eliminate.

This plant was commonly used in many cultures as a cough medicine and a treatment for asthma. In fact, a common name for this plant is “coughwort”.  For this purpose it was mixed with other herbs and smoked like tobacco, or mixed with water and sipped as a tea.

Click on any photo to open the slide show.

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