In many parts of the world it is the first spring flower to appear and in Finland the first Coltsfoot is routinely reported in the media, signalling the end of a long winter and the coming of spring. Something that everybody looks forward to.
Early flowering is achieved because the flower heads form in the previous autumn, lie dormant through the winter and are ready to open at the first sign of spring.
Flowers of the Daisy family don’t have sepals. Instead many of them have a small ring of hairs, above the ovary, that will develop into the pappus or parachute that will carry the seed on the wind. Not all of them, neither Daisies nor Sunflowers develop parachutes but Coltsfoot does.
The Latin name Tussilago comes from the words Tussil (cough) and ago (act on). It was once believed that smoking the leaves would cure a cough and the plant is occasionally referred to as English Tobacco or various other smoking related names. (It should be remembered that Tobacco itself was once hailed as a remedy for respiratory ailments)
The flowers have also been used in herbal medicine and are still available to buy as ready prepared syrups and so on, however we now know that the plant contains compounds that cause severe liver problems over time and are very dangerous to children. There is a variety developed in Germany called Tussilago farfara ‘Wien’ that has had the dangerous compounds removed, it was developed after several severe cases of liver damage and the death of one child whose mother took Coltsfoot during pregnancy. It should be taken with caution.
Wildlife fare better. There is a cup of nectar at the base of each ray floret and the discs are full of pollen. It is a favourite of Honey bees, one study has reported that 51% of all visits to the flower were by Apis mellifera (European Honey Bee). It flowers in early spring and these early nectar sources are very important to all of our insects.
Although insect pollination and seed production is vital to the plants survival most of the seeds produced will fail. Carried by the wind they must settle somewhere they will have a constantly damp environment. Such seeds allow the plant to colonise new areas but most new plants arise from vegetative reproduction (A new plant growing from the roots of an existing one) which is why you will usually find Coltsfoot flowering in quite dense groups.
Species: Tussilago farfara