Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) can be an elusive plant. It raises its flowers before its leaves in the Spring (hence the country nickname “Son before Father”). The flowers quickly pass as the leaves come up and are lost in the verdant rush of Spring. As coltsfoot spreads by underground runners, quite often the leaves come up in a different place to the flowers. Hundreds of years ago people weren’t sure that this was even the same plant. I last saw it three years ago, growing next to an old stone wall along the Rochdale Canal. The golden flowers were once the old herbalists’ shop sign. In the days before most people could read and write, shops identified themselves with symbols – three golden balls for the pawnbroker, a red and white striped pole for the barber, the yellow coltsfoot for the herbalist.
Last weekend I was thrilled to find it growing wild, in a huge mass, on my land at Gowanbank. Down by the woods is an old cart track. Dry, sandy scree. Stones, rubble and poor soil. I had earmarked it for a good tidy up … at some point! That day I was planting out a few pot-bound wild cherry trees along the field drain and noticed a mass of yellow on the slope. From a distance I thought they were dandelions, but up close I realised there were very bright, erect coltsfoot flowers all over the track.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Last week I succumbed to an infection brought home by my son. For the first few days I thought I was just fighting a cold and dosed myself up on high strength echinacea. But on the third day I woke up to realise that this was something a lot worse. Days three and four I was really unwell, and actually took two days off work – as rare an occurrence as hens’ teeth! Temperature, aches and pains – the usual – but worse, the most painful, raw sore throat, breathlessness and wheeziness in the lungs. By day five, I thought it was heading toward bronchitis. I was managing the illness with Elixir of Echinacea (echinacea, wild indigo and fumitory) for immune/antimicrobial support and also Cut A Cough, a squill based medicine that opens the lungs and keeps you breathing!
That night, I woke up about three in the morning with a throat so sore that even breathing in air was like eating shards of glass. During the day, I had been for a walk on the land and while there, picked a pocket full of the coltsfoot leaves appearing beside the waning flowers. Unable to sleep, and remembering the pocket of leaves, I went down to the kitchen and boiled the coltsfoot leaves with some licorice tea bags that I had in the cupboard. To this I added some elderberry syrup made in the autumn (an excellent antiviral) and a good spoonful of honey, then went back to bed with a small cup of it and sipped it slowly.
The relief was almost instant! My throat quickly eased enough for me to sleep again and I fell asleep for several hours, waking late. I felt as if the whole infection had broken. Whereas before the infection was dry and painful, today I feel more that I have a bad, streaming cold. The temperature has gone and I feel human again. Every few hours as my throat becomes a little sore again, I am sipping my coltsfoot mixture.
Traditionally, coltsfoot has been used for thousands of years in cough remedies. Now I understand why – for the incredible soothing effect. It is used by herbalists for acute or chronic bronchitis, laryngitis, pertussis, chronic spasmodic bronchial cough, irritating coughs, whooping cough and asthma. It is particularly soothing to dry, irritated airways. In the past it was a key ingredient in herbal smoking mixtures and treatments for asthmatics.
Coltsfoot has had bad press recently. It contains traces of pyrrolizidine alkaloids which in large doses can have potential liver-toxic effects. However, the alkaloids are largely destroyed when the leaves are boiled to make the medicine. There is also the issue of how much would have to be taken, over how long a period of time, to have a dangerous outcome. Remember the recorded use of this plant is pre-ancient Greece. One very sensible article about the ‘scary dangers’ found in herbs, gleefully seized upon by the British press, that puts comfrey into perspective can be found here: How I poisoned my wife by John-Paul Flintoff.
John-Paul found that “the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US considers the use of comfrey in dietary supplements with “serious concern” because comfrey [like coltsfoot, borage and 240 other plants] contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are “firmly established to be hepatotoxins in animals”. That is, they have been shown to poison animals’ livers. Additionally, the FDA contends that pyrrolizidine alkaloids are carcinogenic. He then investigated the research behind the FDA’s concerns which “appear to arise from studies in Japan and Australia, which found that forcing baby rats to ingest huge quantities of ground comfrey leaves and roots did them no good at all. Some developed tumours.
But the average adult human would need to ingest 20,000 comfrey leaves to produce a comparative dose, and trials on long-term comfrey users, including one at University College London, have apparently found no harmful effects.”
I think I put about 20 leaves in the saucepan. Brought them to the boil for about 5 minutes and then infused them off the heat for about 15 minutes. It made about two pints and I threw away the leaves. So to match the research on the baby rats, I would have to have made about 1,000 times more and drunk it all at once. This is assuming that the pyrrolizidine alkaloids were not eliminated by boiling and that my bladder could have coped with drinking 2,000 pints in one go.
Well, if I was still worried I could always take some milk thistle to protect my liver! I have 14 days left to buy it legally before THMPD kicks in!! Meanwhile, coltsfoot is a welcome resident at Gowanbank.
[NB: I have since written an article called Is Comfrey Safe to Eat?]