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Wild flowers at Magog Down prev  :  next

Coltsfoot - Tussilago farfara

coltsfoot_238Coltsfoot is one of the earlier flowers to appear on Magog Down. From late February to April you may find scattered clumps of its bright, pale yellow flowers borne on downy stems clothed with purplish, rather fleshy, scales. There is a particularly large patch on the south side of the hill a few hundred yards from the belt of trees.The flowers have some resemblance to those of the dandelion and, like those of all other members of the dandelion family, they consist of masses of florets borne on a terminal 'receptacle'. The florets are of two types: in the centre is a disc of tubular florets all of which are male (producing pollen but no seeds) and around these are up to 300 strap-like 'ray florets', all of which are female and are pollinated by bees and flies. Like those of dandelions and daisies, the flowers close up at night.

Elongated, purplish bracts enfold the buds and, when the ray florets have been fertilised, protect the developing seeds. After fertilisation, the heads droop for a while but then become erect again on elongating stems. The bracts then open to reveal a fluffy 'pappus' of pure white hairs which act as 'parachutes', enabling the seeds to which they are attached to be blown far and wide by the wind.

It is not until flowering is over that the coltsfoot's large green leaves appear. This reversal of the normal progression from leaves to flowers gave rise to the name "Son afore Father" by which the plant was once known in parts of the west country. It is from the shape of the leaves (supposedly like the outline of a colt's hoof) that it gets the name by which it is more commonly known.

coltsfoot_250The scientific name Tussilago (from the Latin tussis, a cough) derives from the historical use of the plant as a cure for coughs. The dried leaves, gathered in June and July, have also been used as a constituent of herbal tobaccos prescribed for asthma sufferers, and Syrup of Coltsfoot was once included in the British Pharmacopoeia as a cure for chronic bronchitis.

In addition to their medical value, coltsfoot leaves once had another and rather curious use. When they first emerge they are covered with a white down which is soon lost from their upper surfaces but which persists on their undersides all summer. This down used to be converted into tinder for use with flint and steel. The recipe is given by John Pechey in his Complete Herbal of 1694: the down should be "wrapped in a rag, and boyl'd a little in Lee, adding a little Salt-Petre, and after dried in the Sun".

So, if at any time you find yourself with a bad cough and out of matches, the coltsfoot of Magog Down can supply your needs.

David Yarham
February 1994

See also...

News about the very special area of Colin's Bank, published in February 2015


News about a visit by the local branch of Butterfly Conservation charity taking place in August 2016

Pasque Flower

One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.pasqueflower_jb_may2016_crop_453

Photo by Jill Butler