Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is an early spring bloomer that many people mistake for dandelions, although it blooms before dandelions bloom, and if you look at it closely, you’ll see that the flowers, while similar in colour and shape, are different, and that there are no leaves at all showing on the plant right now. Soon there will be large leaves that look nothing like a dandelion’s. (In fact, the leaves are said to resemble a colt’s foot. I guess I don’t know enough about what a colt’s foot looks like, because I would not have thought of that comparison.)
It commonly grows near wet places, like rivers, lakes, ponds, swamps, marshes, and fens, as well as in mixed-hardwood riparian floodplains. I’ve seen it in numerous places in New Hampshire and Maine, including alongside roads, on the edge of woods, and next to creeks and swampy areas. It probably wouldn’t be found in a predominantly pine forest, as it prefers neutral to strongly alkaline soil. In northern New England, it generally is up by mid-April and the blooms persist until some time in June.
It’s a plant I have had in a past garden — in the wettest part of the yard — but not in this current garden (yet). In fact, in that garden, on the coast of Maine, I spent many an hour removing them, thinking it was a weed. And of course, it is a weed but I would think twice about expunging it now, even though it is not native to the U.S. and is considered by some to be an invasive species.
For one thing, it’s a honeybee host (one of the few at this time of year, as Mary Holland notes) as well as a nectar source for some adult butterflies, like the American Copper. It also provides food for hoverflies (Syrphidae), flies (Diptera), and beetles (Coleoptera). It has medicinal properties — “it contains mucilage, bitter glycosides, and tannins; it is these that are thought to give the herb anti-inflammatory and antitussive (cough prevention and treatment) properties” — though it may also cause liver damage (especially) in infants) due to two rather potent alkaloids, senecionine and senkirkine.
Edible Wild Foods (also quoted above) says that “Coltsfoot flowers can be eaten. They can be tossed into salads to add a wonderful aromatic flavour; or fill a jar with the flowers and add honey to make a remedy to help calm a cough or to sweeten a bitter herbal tea. Dried flowers can be dried and chopped up so that they can be added to pancakes, fritters, etc. Young leaves can be added to soups or strews and small quantities of fresh young leaves can be used in salads. The leaves have a bitter taste unless they are washed after being boiled. An aromatic tea is made from the fresh or dried leaves and flowers. The dried and burnt leaves are used as a salt substitute.”
Note: Don’t confuse this coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) with another plant called sweet coltsfoot (Petasites frigidus).
More on coltsfoot
YouTube video on identifying the coltsfoot plant from the leaves, up close and personal