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Coltsfoot: the bad and the good

Coltsfoot by a Pennsylvania roadside, with cigarette butt. Image ©Garden
This week, here in Pennsylvania, the roadsides are bright with a colorful wildflower at its peak. OK, of course, it’s not actually a Pennsylvania native, or even an American native, but it sure looks sunny.

Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara (above, click to enlarge), is a widespread British plant which presumably came over with colonists. In Britain it grows in many sunny places, often on heavy soils, and it’s been a difficult agricultural weed; its white runners are certainly very resilient.

In the US, it’s now found in much of the east and north east, and in the Pacific North West, while in Pennsylvania the USDA distribution map reveals that our county, Pike County, in the east of PA, is one of the few where it’s not found. Don’t think so: see pictures.

Pennsylvania roadside population of coltsfoot, with beer can. Image ©GardenPhotos.comHere in the US, I’ve only ever seen it on roadsides (left, click to enlarge) and in roadside parking areas although the Flora of Pennsylvania reports it “on roadsides, railroad rights-of-way, stream banks, and waste places” – which is pretty much exactly the language used to describe the distribution of Japanese knotweed. The implication being that man’s activities spread it along roads and where road meets river the river takes a hand. In Alabama it’s noted as “Class A noxious weed”; in Connecticut as “Invasive, banned”; in Massachusetts it’s “Prohibited” while in Oregon it’s an “"A" designated weed”. Sounds like it can be a bit of a beast.

But why “coltsfoot”? Well, this more or less describes the hoof-shaped leaves which emerge when the flowers are done. So it’s also been known as horse-hoof, and foal’s foot.

But this is actually quite a useful plant. It turns out – courtesy of Geoffrey Grigson’s wonderful book The Englishman’s Flora – that not only were the dried leaves once smoked to alleviate asthma, but that it’s still an ingredient of herbal tobacco. And, in the long gone days of tinder-boxes, the silver down on the backs of the leaves was collected as tinder. (What a job that must have been.) So perhaps plants were brought to the new world because they were so useful. It seems, in the US at least, they’re now becoming rather the opposite.

But, here in Pennsylvania, I like to see them brightening up the roadsides in spring. Just warming us up for the dandelions - of which more another time.