The first wildflower I see every spring is the above, Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara. Even before the Bloodroot starts unfurling, or the trilliums open up, there’s the bright yellow flower heads of the Coltsfoot, pushing up between the brown leaves of last autumn. Like many of our wildflowers, Coltsfoot isn’t native to North America. It’s funny, all the wildflowers that I think of when I think of a summer meadow, things like Queen Anne’s Lace, or Butter-and-eggs, Viper’s Bugloss, or Chicory – they’re all introduced from Eurasia. Which makes you wonder what inhabited the meadows in the summer before they got here. Coltsfoot was introduced to Canada in the 1920s, and is now found in most provinces.
The flowers superficially resemble dandelions, and can be mistaken for them. Like dandelions, they belong to the aster family. Asters can be identified by having a group of central flowers that form a “capitulum”. In a plant like the coneflower, the capitulum can be tall and pronounced. In the daisy, it’s flat, or slightly domed. The flowers can by tiny, looking to the naked eye like a stippled but solid surface, or they can be pronounced, giving the coneflower its spikey appearance, but in any case they’re always present. The “petals” surrounding the capitulum are actually bracts, modified leaves that are frequently brightly coloured to present the appearance of a large flower head, widening the surface area that attracts pollinators. If you remove all the little tiny bracts from the coltsfoot, there’s not a lot of flower left to attract insects.
Coltsfoot is usually found growing in large patches. This is because the plant grows and spreads from rhizomes, a “root” network (actually a type of horizontal stem) that has the ability to send up new shoots at a distance from the parent plant. All of the flowers in the above photo likely belong to the same plant.
It has the ability to grow in poor-quality soils, such as roadsides and waste places, and probably explains why it does so well out at TTPBRS relative to other flowers, as the primary soil substrate there is sand. It can often be found growing in gravel pits, and frequently rhizomes that are carried away with a load of gravel will start up a new plant where the stone is deposited, aiding in the species’ dispersion. Tilling can have the same effect in agricultural fields.
The plant does also produce seeds, although seed production is a less important form of reproduction. The seed heads of the plant resemble those of a spent dandelion, white and fluffy. However, Coltsfoot will begin to go to seed before dandelion is really beginning to bloom.
Coltsfoot puts up flowers first thing, even before it grows any foliage. Food, in the form of starches, is stored in the rhizomes over the summer, allowing the flowers to form in the following spring before the plant begins photosynthesizing. A potato is an example of a starchy storage system used by the plant for future growth (in the potato’s case the tuber is from a stolon, not a rhizome, but same basic purpose). Usually the plant’s leaves only begin to appear after the flower has matured and set seed.
The name “Coltsfoot” is taken from the shape of the mature leaves, which resemble the cross-section of the hoof of a colt (young male horse, though they have the same foot-shape as a female horse or an adult horse; indeed, among other names for the plant are Foal’s Foot and Horse’s Foot).
Historically, Coltsfoot has been used for medicinal purposes as a cough suppressant. The plant would be dried and crushed, and then smoked to relieve asthma and various coughs. The genus name, “Tussilago”, even means “cough suppressant”, and another common name it has is “Coughwart”. Crushed flowers were also supposed to cure skin conditions.
Being one of the earliest flowers in the spring, it’s especially important to early-flying insects. In Europe it’s the larval foodplant for a few moth species, but I didn’t see any records of it being commonly used by North American species. However, honeybees (incidentally also a Eurasian species) are a common visitor.
At TTPBRS, the flowers bloom at the side of one of the primary trails, in an area of young cottonwoods. As I’m doing the rounds in the morning, early in the season, I look for the flowers. They close up at night, so take a few hours in the morning to become obvious again – a person walking through just after dawn might miss them, while someone coming by at noon would find a wide scattering of bright flowers. Its status as an introduced species notwithstanding, I’m always happy to see them blooming, the first colour to come to the post-winter landscape.