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Northern Research Station
One Gifford Pinchot Drive
Madison, WI 53726
(608) 231-9318
(608) 231-9544 TTY/TDD

Sustaining Forests

Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine

Plant Profiles

Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara

Coltsfoot flowers usually bloom before the leaves, photo by Michelle BaumflekFamily: Asteraceae
Other Names:  Tussilage (French)

Sometimes, the scientific name of a plant gives us clues about its uses.  Coltsfoot is one such species.  ‘Tussis’ is Latin for cough (like Robitussin), and coltsfoot has been a widely used folk remedy in Europe for thousands of years.  Pliny the Elder prescribed inhaling the smoke from dried leaves to treat respiratory problems in the first century A.D.  An alternative name for coltsfoot in parts of Europe is “son before the father,”  referring to the fact that the bright yellow flowers come out early in the spring and disappear before the leaves emerge.

Coltsfoot's namesake leaves, photo by Michelle BaumflekPhysical Description: Coltsfoot is a spreading, rhizomatous perennial with large basal leaves and scaly, purplish stems.  Yellow flowers around one inch in diameter appear in early spring and are followed by the emergence of leaves later in the season.  Leaves have long stems, are broadly heart shaped, with shallow lobes and a coarsely toothed margin.  Leaf undersides are hairy and white. 

Habitat: Coltsfoot is a native of Europe, but has become naturalized in much of North America.  It spreads aggressively, and is considered highly invasive in several New England states.  Coltsfoot is often found in wet areas, such as ditches along roadsides and trails. 

Uses:  The leaves and flowers of coltsfoot are used medicinally to treat respiratory ailments.  A small amount of tincture made from dried coltsfoot leaves and flowers is used in cough syrup recipes.  Others inhale the smoke of flowers, which is reputed to be helpful in treating asthma, bronchitis and persistent coughs.  One interviewee teaches camp children a very practical use for coltsfoot:  the large, wooly leaves make excellent emergency toilet paper.

Preparation: Dry leaves and flowers of coltsfoot before burning or use in tinctures.  Fresh or dried flowers may be combined with boiling water to create a medicinal tea. 

When to harvest: Harvest flowers and stems at the peak of blooming in early spring.  Leaves are harvested later in the spring.  Glenda Wysote-Labillois, offers this harvesting tip:

"[Some people] will pick the nice green ones, because they look so nice and healthy. But the best ones to pick are the ones that have all the black spots on them, because that’s the oil that’s surfacing on top, and telling you that it’s ready to be picked."

Tips for Sustainable Harvesting/Management: Coltsfoot spreads aggressively through seed and rhizomes.  Take care not to introduce plants to sensitive areas where they might establish themselves.  One interviewee’s experience can serve as a caution:

"I’ve moved some [plants], but I can tell you, the worst plant I did it with was coltsfoot.  Because, my neighbor had some, and he was going to re-do his whole yard, and I said “well, could I have a few plants, I’ll take all you want”, never realizing how that thing spreads.  So, it’s in our lawn, and it gets caught in everything, but it just doesn’t go away."

Photos by Michelle Baumflek
Species information references: 14, 19

Information about medicinal plant uses is provided for educational purposes only.  It should not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment and is not a substitute for consultation with a licensed physician.

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Last Modified: 05/24/2010