Much as I like to welcome the first flowers of spring such as snowdrops and daffodils, they are not true wild flowers and it is probably the humble coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) which gives me the most pleasure.
It is one of the few native plants whose flowers appear before their leaves and their preferred habitat of bare stony places beside streams and rivers allows the vivid yellow blooms to stand out like miniature sunbursts.
This odd flowering habit gives rise to one of its local names, “son before the father”.
I used to think that its common name came from the fact that before the flower fully opened, if held upside down it looked like the leg of a horse. I have since learned that the name comes from the shape of the leaves which are hoof shaped.
Like several other spring flowers, it only opens when the sun is out and closes up at night and during dull weather.
It has been used medicinally as a cough suppressant. The name “tussilago” itself means cough suppressant.
The plant has been used since at least historical times to treat lung ailments such as asthma as well as various coughs by way of smoking.
Crushed flowers supposedly cured skin conditions, and the plant has been consumed as a food item.
This plant has been put to a wide range of uses through the years. The leaves can be incorporated into salads, cooked and used to make tea. The felt from the leaves has been used as a stuffing agent and dried for use as tinder. Coltsfoot is still available in health-food outlets as a treatment for coughs and other chest problems.
The plant must be boiled before being ingested as it contains substances that can be toxic to the liver.
Coltsfoot’s lore lies in its smoke.
During the Second World War, soldiers in Europe smoked it as a substitute for tobacco, and through the ages the dried leaves were burnt and inhaled to treat lung infections. Some still refer to it as coughwort.
It is still smoked in some areas today as herbal tobacco, and the names “baccy plant” and “poor-man’s baccy” survive in some parts of Britain.
The next time you come across these miniature suns growing on a piece of waste ground, don’t dismiss it as a useless weed, as it does have its qualities.
It certainly cheers me up, which, after the March we’ve just had, can’t be bad.