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Posts Tagged ‘Tussilago farfara’

Coltsfoot

coltsfoot

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.

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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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One of the earliest wildflowers to bloom, even before the ubiquitous dandelion, is Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara). Its cheery yellow face brightens patches of barren ground along roadsides before most other plants have even though about blooming. This tough little plant is a native of Europe. It’s ability to thrive in rough, inhospitable areas has allowed this member of the aster family to find a niche for itself in its adopted land. Birdgirl did a nice post about Coltsfoot over at The Marvelous in Nature, so I’ll leave you to check out Sunshine in a Bed of Leaves if you’d like to learn more about it.

Another spring bloomer that reminds me of Coltsfoot is (are?) Field Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta). Pussytoes are also a member of the aster family, although unlike Coltsfoot, they are native to North America. Pussytoes are more subtle than Coltsfoot, and feature small, woolly white flowers that do indeed bear a resemblance to feline toes. Pussytoes favor dry, sandy ground in open fields, and like Coltsfoot, may sometimes be found growing in clumps along the roadside.

Pussytoes, and closely-related species such as Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), are unusual in producing male and female flowers separately on different plants. They usually grow in unisexual clonal patches that arise from stolens, creeping horizontal stems. Like Pearly Everlasting, Pussytoes are a caterpillar food for the American Lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis).

John Eastman, in The Book of Field and Roadside, notes that in English-speaking countries there is a certain “botany of cute”, which is particularly noteworthy in the vernacular names of wildflowers. Further, there is a subcategory of foot-cute, and Coltsfoot and Pussytoes have in common membership in this group!

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