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Medicinal Wild Herbs: Coltsfoot

Add coltsfoot to the list of wild herbs that were once widely known to have medicinal qualities.

| January/February 1983

  • wild herbs coltsfoot - beer and wine
    Beer and wine can be made from the herb.
  • wild herbs coltsfoot - goldfinch nest
    Goldfinches line their nests with Coltsfoot's silky seed hairs.
  • wild herbs coltsfoot - leaves, roots, flowers
    As with many wild herbs, for human purposes the leaves and roots of coltsfoot are the useful parts of the plant.
    Illustration by MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff

  • wild herbs coltsfoot - beer and wine
  • wild herbs coltsfoot - goldfinch nest
  • wild herbs coltsfoot - leaves, roots, flowers

Lately, more and more people have begun to understand just how limited, in both variety and nutritional value, our "modern" diets have become. This realization has sparked a new and widespread interest in the culinary and therapeutic uses of herbs — those plants which, although not well-known today, were honored "guests" on the dinner tables and in the medicine chests of our grandparents' homes just one short generation ago. In this regular feature, MOTHER EARTH NEWS will examine the availability, cultivation, and benefits of our "forgotten" vegetable foods and remedies, and — we hope — help prevent the loss of still another bit of ancestral lore.

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is among the handsomest (and most unusual) of wild herbs. It's been known to physicians and natural healers for over 2,000 years, and its many reputed virtues would certainly make it seem worth investigating today.

For example, coltsfoot has been used as a remedy for colds, asthma, and chronic bronchitis. Indeed, its generic name comes from the Latin words tussis ago, meaning "I drive [out] a cough", and it's known as coughwort in some areas. The herb's reputed curative powers also extend to agues, inflammations, hot swellings, burns, erysipelas (St. Anthony's fire), and wheals, all of which are said to be relieved by poultices of crushed coltsfoot leaves or by internally taken forms of the herb.

The common methods of preparing Tussilago include steeping the leaves in hot water to make a tea; boiling 1 ounce of dried leaves in 1 quart of water, until the liquid is reduced by half, to produce a decoction which (when strained and sweetened with honey or licorice) can be given by the teacupful as needed; and smoking the crushed, dried leaves in a pipe.

The last practice has been recommended since the first century, when Pliny advised burning the leaves and roots on a bed of cypress charcoal, then drawing the smoke into the mouth through a reed and swallowing it. Today coltsfoot is the primary ingredient of British Herb Tobacco (the others being eyebright, betony, buckbean, rosemary, thyme, lavender, and chamomile), and many feel that it's just as efficacious as ever in loosening phlegm and relieving a persistent cough.

Although coltsfoot is considered a medicinal herb, it has some culinary uses as well. The young leaves can be cooked and served as a green, fried in batter, included in omelets, and served with a tasty mustard sauce. Beer (called cleats) and wine (called clayt wine) can also be made from the herb.

In early spring the plants produce flowering stalks with numerous reddish bracts (or scales) and whitish, woolly hairs. Each stem bears a single bright yellow flower, resembling a flat-topped dandelion that closes up at night or when the sky is overcast.

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