Commonly called coughwort, coltsfoot’s botanical name is Tussilago, which literally means cough-dispeller. The flowers and cooling, mucilaginous leaves make a relaxing and soothing demulcent expectorant, which tones the respiratory system.
Coltsfoot is unfailing in alleviating bronchial problems, chest congestion and stubborn coughs. It is considered a specific against whooping cough. Ayurvedic healers use coltsfoot for helping those with coughs, headaches and nasal congestion. My neighbor’s daughter had serious bronchial congestion combined with a painful cough. I made her a strong infusion of dried coltsfoot leaves and hyssop. She sipped this throughout that day and the next. By the first night she was beginning to feel better, and on the second day the coughing lessened and her strength began to return. She continued with two cups of infusion daily for several more days and was “as good as new” by the end of a week. (See discussion at end of coltsfoot section.)
Coltsfoot has a long history of use as a smoking herb. The Greek physician, Dioscorides, recommended coltsfoot smoke to relieve coughs and asthma. Smoking carries healing energies directly into the lungs, opening air passageways and easing breathing.
Just as your grandmother’s grandmother might have done, you can make a coltsfoot flower syrup which is especially effective for those with dry, stubborn coughs and chronic bronchitis. In China, the flowers, known as kuan dong hua, are used alone or in syrups to reduce phlegm and relieve chronic coughs. A flower tincture is also effective.
My Southern Italia neighbors call this plant tossilaggine comune or stampa di cavallo. A decoction of coltsfoot root combined with mallow and Bermuda grass is traditionally used to counter infections of the respiratory system, and most notably as a cough sedative. The flowers are also used as an infusion or a syrup to sedate bronchial spasms. The leaves are dried and powdered and smoked to treat asthma. A decoction of leaves is employed as an emollient wash to cool and soothe eczema and the leaves are applied topically to draw out abscesses and boils.
The leaves of coltsfoot are rich in zinc. To heal sores, wounds and ulcers, try applying fresh coltsfoot leaves as a poultice. Coltsfoot abounds in mucilage, and also contains tannins, alkaloids, inulin, sterols, flavonoids (including rutin), potassium and calcium.
WARNING! One of its constituents, pyrrolizidine alkaloid (PAs), is considered so dangerous that some countries prohibit the sale and use of coltsfoot. These alkaloids cause liver damage in rats and neonatal humans. However, when coltsfoot is used as a crude herb, the abundant mucilage in the leaves buffers the minute amount of PAs. There are no PAs in the flowers.
Flower Essence For those experiencing frustration on their spiritual path, coltsfoot flower essence may be an aid as it helps us to slow down, take a deep breath, regroup, and go on with clearer vision.
Magical Lore Coltsfoot leaves are traditionally used in love magic, to call in calm and tranquility and burned to enhance divination.
Culture An unusual aspect of coltsfoot is the way the yellow, dandelion-like flowers appear early in spring, before the leaves are visible. When the leaves do appear, they are shaped, as their name implies, like a colt’s foot. Light, bright green on the top, white and woolly underneath, coltsfoot leaves are thick and rubbery feeling and eventually grow quite large. Sometimes they have a web-like scale on top of the leaf which I spent hours trying to rub off before I learned it was a natural part of the plant.
Coltsfoot grows from 3-to-12 inches high. Because it likes a moist environment, I look for it in low places, such as the edge of a pond or stream or in the ditches alongside a road. Since I don’t want to gather it from the roadside, I look to see if it creeps into the woods or a nearby clearing where it will be better for gathering. If you find an abundant supply, transplant a couple of coltsfoot plants to your wild garden, in an out-of-the-way, damp, shady place, as coltsfoot spreads like crazy.
I harvest coltsfoot flowers for syrups as soon as they appear. I gather the leaves later in summer, when they are large, laying them out to dry in a thin layer on screens. I don’t tincture coltsfoot as that would concentrate the pyrrolizidine alkaloids.