Archive for May 5th, 2011



The first wildflower of the season to be seen around here, even before the dandelions appear, is Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara). The brilliant yellow heads, shining from patches of rough roadside terrain like little suns, are a welcome sight. An old-world native, Coltsfoot may have been introduced to North America by settlers who used the plant for medicinal purposes. The scientific name, Tussilago, means cough suppressant, and Coltsfoot has historically been used to treat respiratory ailments such as asthma. However, the discovery of toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids in the plant has resulted in liver health concerns.

My daughter Seabrooke did an excellent post on Coltsfoot back in 2008. I’ll share some of it with you here. You can read the full entry at The Marvellous in Nature.

The flowers superficially resemble dandelions, and can be mistaken for them. Like dandelions, they belong to the aster family. Asters can be identified by having a group of central flowers that form a “capitulum”. In a plant like the coneflower, the capitulum can be tall and pronounced. In the daisy, it’s flat, or slightly domed. The flowers can by tiny, looking to the naked eye like a stippled but solid surface, or they can be pronounced, giving the coneflower its spiky appearance. The “petals” surrounding the capitulum are actually bracts, modified leaves that are frequently brightly coloured to present the appearance of a large flower head, widening the surface area that attracts pollinators.


Coltsfoot is usually found growing in large patches. This is because the plant grows and spreads from rhizomes, a “root” network (actually a type of horizontal stem) that has the ability to send up new shoots at a distance from the parent plant.

Coltsfoot puts up flowers first thing, even before it grows any foliage. Food, in the form of starches, is stored in the rhizomes over the summer, allowing the flowers to form in the following spring before the plant begins photosynthesizing. A potato is an example of a starchy storage system used by the plant for future growth (in the potato’s case the tuber is from a stolon, not a rhizome, but same basic purpose). Usually the plant’s leaves only begin to appear after the flower has matured and set seed.


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