The Coltsfoot, which grows abundantly throughout England in

places of moist, heavy soil, especially along the sides of our raised

railway banks, has been justly termed nature's best herb for the

lungs, and her most eminent thoracic. Its seeds are supposed to

have lain [117] dormant from primitive times, where our railway

cuttings now upturn them and set them growing anew; and the

rotting foliage of the primeval herb by
retaining its juices, is

thought to have promoted the development and growth of our

common earthworm.

The botanical name of Coltsfoot is Tussilago farfara, signifying

tussis ago, I drive away a cold; and farfar, the white poplar

tree, which has a similar leaf. It is one of the Composite order, and

the older authors named this plant, Filius ante patrem--the son

before the father, because the flowers appear and wither before

the leaves are produced. These flowers, at the very beginning of

Spring, stud the banks with gay, golden, leafless blossoms, each

growing on a stiff scaly stalk, and resembling a dandelion in

miniature. The leaves, which follow later on, are made often into

cigars, or are smoked as British herbal tobacco, being mixed for

this purpose with the dried leaves and flowers of the eye-bright,

buckbean, betony, thyme, and lavender, to which some persons

add rose leaves, and chamomile flowers. All these are rubbed

together by the hands into a coarse powder, Coltsfoot forming

quite one-half of the same; and this powder may be very

beneficially smoked for asthma, or for spasmodic bronchial cough.

Linnoeus said, Et adhuc hodie plebs in Suecia, instar tabaci

contra tussim fugit--Even to-day the Swiss people cure their

coughs with Coltsfoot employed like tobacco. When the flowers

are fully blown and fall off, the seeds with their clock form a

beautiful head of white flossy silk, and if this flies away when

there is no wind it is said to be a sure sign of coming rain. The

Goldfinch often lines her nest with the soft pappus of the

Coltsfoot. In Paris the Coltsfoot flower is painted on the doorposts

of an apothecary's house.

[118] From earliest times, the plant has been found helpful in

maladies of the chest. Hippocrates advised it with honey for

ulcerations of the lungs. Dioscorides, Pliny, and Galen, severally

commended the use of its smoke, conducted into the mouth

through a funnel or reed, for giving ease to cough and difficult

breathing; they named it breechion, from breex, a cough.

In taste, the leaves are harsh, bitter, and mucilaginous. They

appear late in March, being green above, with an undersurface

which is white, and cottony. Sussex peasants esteem the white

down of the leaves as a most valuable medicine.

All parts of the plant contain chemically tannin, with a special

bitter principle, and free mucilage; so that the herb is to be

considered emollient, demulcent, and tonic. Dr. Cullen employed a

decoction of the leaves with much benefit in scrofula, where the

use of sea water had failed. And Dr. Fuller tells about a girl cured

of twelve scrofulous sores, by drinking daily, for four months, as

much as she could of Coltsfoot tea, made so strong from the leaves

as to be sweet and glutinous. A modern decoction is prepared from

the herb with boiling water poured on the leaves, and with

liquorice root and honey added.

But, hark! I hear the pancake bell, said Poor Richard in his

almanack, 1684; alluding to pancakes then made with Coltsfoot,

like tansies, and fried with saged butter.

A century later it was still the fashion to treat consumptive young

women with quaint remedies. Mrs. Delaney writes in 1758, Does

Mary cough in the Night? two or three snails boiled in her barley

water may be of great service to her.

Again, the confectioner provides Coltsfoot rock, [119] concocted

in fluted sticks of a brown colour, as a sweetmeat, and flavoured

with some essential oil--as aniseed, or dill--these sticks being well

beloved by most schoolboys. The dried leaves, when soaked out in

warm water, will serve as an excellent emollient poultice. A

certain preparation, called Essence of Coltsfoot, found great

favour with our grand sires for treating their colds. This consisted

of Balsam of Tolu and Friar's Balsam in equal parts, together with

double the quantity of Spirit of Wine. It did not really contain

a trace of Coltsfoot, and the nostrum was provocative of

inflammation, because of the spirit in excess. Dr. Paris said: And

this, forsooth, is a pectoral for coughs! If a patient with a catarrh

should recover whilst using such a remedy, I should certainly

designate it a lucky escape, rather than a skilful cure. Gerard

wrote about Coltsfoot: The fume of the dried leaves, burned upon

coles, effectually helpeth those that fetch their winde thicke, and

breaketh without peril the impostumes of the brest; also the

green leaves do heal the hot inflammation called Saint Anthony's


The names of the herb--Coltsfoot, and Horsehoof--are derived

from the shape of the leaf. It is likewise known as Asses' foot, and

Cough wort; also as Foal's foot, and Bull's foot, Hoofs, and (in

Yorkshire) Cleats.

To make an infusion or decoction of the plant for a confirmed

cough, or for chronic bronchitis, pour a pint of boiling water on an

ounce of the dried leaves and flowers, and take half a teacupful of

it when cold three or four times in the day. The silky down of the

seed-heads is used in the Highlands for stuffing pillows, and the

presence of coal is said to be indicated by an abundant growth of

the herb.

Another species, the Butter bur (Tussilago petasites), [120] is

named from petasus, an umbrella, or a broad covering for the

head. It produces the largest leaves of any plant in Great Britain,

which sometimes measure three feet in breadth. This plant was

thought to be of great use in the time of the plague, and thus got

the names of Pestilent wort, Plague flower and Bog Rhubarb. Both

it, and the Coltsfoot, are specific remedies (H.) for severe and

obstinate neuralgia in the small of the back, and the loins, a

medicinal tincture being prepared from each herb.