Common, yet commonly overlooked

There are a number of early flowers people look for in spring, like pussy willows and skunk cabbage. But somehow to me, when the coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) blooms, this signals true spring warmth.

Coltsfoot leaf

The leaves of coltsfoot are shaped like the hoof print of a horse.

Coltsfoot gets its name from the shape of its leaves, which resembles a horses’ hoof with broad teeth around the margin. However, you usually won’t see these emerge until after the plant has flowered.

The flower stalks rise up out of sandy soils and wet areas in early spring. They are frequently found in disturbed areas such as roadsides, ditches, pathways and construction areas. The bright yellow flower looks so much like a small dandelion I suspect many folks mistake it for one, but you can see the difference if you look closely at the flower stalk, which is streaked with light purple and has a number of scales along it. Similar to dandelions, the flowers form fluffy seed heads after blooming.

Native to Asia and Europe, coltsfoot has become common throughout much of North America. It is considered invasive in Maine, as in several other New England states, and is of minimal benefit for wildlife. Care should be taken not to introduce this plant to sensitive areas where it might establish itself and out-compete native plants, as it spreads aggressively through seed and rhizomes.

People have used coltsfoot medicinally for thousands of years to treat respiratory problems. A tincture made from dried coltsfoot flowers and leaves has traditionally been used as a cough syrup, and the flowers have been dried and smoked to treat asthma, bronchitis and coughs.

Regardless whether we view it as friend or foe, coltsfoot is here to stay, and it is hard to bear much of a grudge against such a bright and cheerful sign of spring.