Flora: Coltsfoot - Huflattich - Tussilage

In order to do justice to my name and to share my interest in nature and botany, I have started a Wildflower gallery. Here on my blog, I will show wildflower photographs and share links and interesting facts about different plants under the label Flora. The goal of these photographs is to package little bits of information into the accompanying notes of wildflower photographs. The photographs are therefore mostly documentary, but this does hopefully not prevent you from enjoying them.
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Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) flowers - harbingers of spring

The first flower that I am featuring is a harbinger of spring - the Coltsfoot (Huflattich in German, le Tussilage in French, Tussilago farfara in Latin). It is hard to admit, but the French name is clearly the most fitting because it indicates that this plant has something to do with cough (the latin word tussis translates as cough). The leaves of Coltsfoot are one of the oldest medicinal plants and have been used for their antitussive and mucolytic powers (a very good German text is found here, an English text is there). Unfortunately, Coltsfoot also synthesizes chemical compounds (so called pyrrolizidine alkaloids) to defends itself against herbivores. These defense molecules are also toxic and carcinogenic for us if consumed in large doses (instructive texts are found HERE and HERE, links to more articles are listed on THIS page). Due to these health concerns, the commercial use of pyrrolizidine containing plants has been restricted or even banished in some countries. This, in turn, has stimulated research and lead to the discovery and in vitro propagation of pyrrolizidine-free Coltsfoot (a summary article in German is found HERE). A less toxic but in certain situations more useful application of the wooly, hairy coltsfoot leaves is indicated by its colloquial name "hikers toilet paper."

As long as its flowering, Coltsfoot is very easily recognizable. The Coltsfoot flowers are some of the first to appear in spring and they usually grow in disturbed, bare locations. However, since the medically relevant leaves appear only after flowering, fatal mix-ups can happen. Plants with similar leaves include the Butterbur (Petasites) or species of the genus Adenostyles, both of which contain more pyrrolizidines than Coltsfoot! To those of you living in Europe, Coltsfoot should be a common plant: it is widely distributed in Europe and Asia. However, it has also been introduced in North America. In the photograph above I particularly like how the two flowers intertwine and shine like two little suns; they almost look at you.

2012/09/09 by Florian Freimoser
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