On the Wildside: Early spring flowers on the way

Colts-foot is a distinctive, early, springtime flower with bright yellow, dandelion-like blooms in February before the leaves emerge around April.

This cousin of the familiar dandelion favours disturbed sites, or ‘waste ground’, and generally areas which are rough and well-drained. Disused railway lines for instance and abandoned former industrial sites are likely places to find colts-foot. Flower emergence before the leaves gave rise to the folk name ‘Son-before-Father’.

The name colts-foot and the alternative ‘foal’s foot’, relate to the hoof-like shape of the leaves once emerged. The Latin name Tussilago is from a word used Roman author Pliny for a cough (‘tussis’) because the leaves were used to make a cough medicine, perhaps because they are vaguely lung-shaped!

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This would be derived from a medieval idea called the ‘doctrine of symbols’, whereby plants and fungi grew to look like parts of the body or areas of disease that they might be used to treat. In England during the Second World War, you could buy colts-foot rock sweets because they were a cough medicine and not rationed.

With a somewhat ironic twist, the plant was also used to make a herbal tobacco substitute, in Somerset for example, being known as ‘Baccy Plant’. It was reported that in some rural areas poorer workers might ‘harvest’ colts-foot leaves from dense patches of the plant to sell as herbal tobacco.

The sixteenth-century herbalist Culpeper suggested colts-foot as a remedy for ague, especially mixed with elderflower or (perhaps rather questionably), with nightshade. This might be applied externally via a wet cloth applied to the head or the stomach and was particularly recommended for symptoms of ergot poisoning (known as St Anthony’s Fire) from fungal-contaminated rye grain bread.

The latter was a potentially fatal poisoning which caused tens of thousands of deaths in medieval France, and it is unlikely that colts-foot would help. However, the term was also applied to shingles and perhaps it was more use in those cases.

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Culpeper also advocated smoking tobacco from the leaves or the root for anyone with a cough or shortness of breath.

Professor Ian D. Rotherham, researcher, writer & broadcaster on wildlife & environmental issues, is contactable on [email protected]; follow Ian’s blog (https://ianswalkonthewildside.wordpress.com/) and Twitter @IanThewildside