Late Coltsfoot Flowers and Dark-eyed Juncos

In my early Spring post I was wrong about the Dark-eyed Juncos having gone north for the season. On the 9th of April I saw a small troupe of juncos pecking the stones on our gravel driveway. Obviously, all the juncos hadn’t flown back to Canada quite yet.

Robins made their Spring appearance and have been hopping around the place for a few weeks now. I suppose the juncos will leave any day, unless they are year-round residents that stay in the Appalachian Mountains all year.

Dark-eyed junco or slate-colored junco, female.
Dark-eyed junco or slate-colored junco, female.

Another blooper popped up last week when listing a few early blooming plants that are ahead of schedule this year. As luck would have it coltsfoot was mentioned as one of the plants that were finished blooming for the season, albeit earlier than normal. Such a definitive statement is bound to get one in trouble with the whims of Mother Nature.

In most places along our country roads you can see the seed heads of coltsfoot plants that have already bloomed for the year. The round, composite seed heads are much like the spent flower heads of dandelions that a child picks up to blow the seeds into the air.

Coltsfoot seed heads are white in the background and dandelion is flowering yellow in the foreground.
Coltsfoot seed heads are white in the background and dandelion is flowering yellow in the foreground. Photo taken 5 April 2012.

The flowers in the photo above faced south with at least a road’s width of open space to its south. One usually finds this early spring bloomer along roadsides and in full sun. Most of the coltsfoot flowers have ended their early blooming for the year but small pockets of flowering coltsfoot may still be seen. Look in secluded or shady areas for the last-flowering coltsfoot blossoms.

Coltsfoot flowers close up and droop their heads overnight, then raise them in the sunshine of the following day.
Coltsfoot flowers close up and droop their heads overnight, then raise them in the sunshine of the following day. Photo taken 12:30 p.m. on 5 April 2012.

Trading the cold of night for the warmth of sunshine, coltsfoot flowers gain enough energy to raise their heads and open their composite flowers. The coltsfoot in this particular location didn’t seem to open their flowers completely by late afternoon, so they were probably on their last few days before turning to seed.

Coltsfoot flower heads open up slowly in filtered sunshine.
Coltsfoot flower heads open up slowly in filtered sunshine. Photo taken at 2 p.m. 5 April 2012.

The last two photos are of the same clump of coltsfoot, taken about an hour-and-a-half apart. This grouping of coltsfoot was along a Pennsylvania country road and adjacent to woodlands on the south. Sunlight was filtered through the trees and so made for a late-blooming set of coltsfoot.

Coltsfoot Blooms and Dandelion Salad

Coltsfolt was in full bloom in the sun yesterday, yet hardly noticeable the previous few cloudy days. The first I saw it blooming this year was on 15 April.

Spring continues to bring out the posies. In the flower beds the crocus blooms are dying back and the anemones and hyacinths are taking their turns blooming. Tulips are still making leaves and starting to push up their flowers. Forsythia buds grew out last week to first blossom on 14 April.

Red-spotted newts were seen floating around in the pond, too!

Another plant showing the elevation effect on bloom time is a Star Magnolia on our ridge. It had half-opened three or four blossoms on 15 April, while another one down in the valley was in full bloom on the same day.

Now that we’re almost a third of the way into Spring, the dandelions are out. This past weekend the first dandelion flower was picked. Once the dandelions show their happy faces, it’s notable for kicking off the lawn care season. Some people can’t stand to see the bright yellow flowers “messing up” their yards. We don’t mind them and prefer to leave things in more of a natural state.

Grass is starting to get long enough to cut in some areas and the downed wood from winter and windy spring weather has to be picked up. Gardening activities can resume when the weather allows, but the early spring salads have already been enjoyed. Including dandelion!

Ham and dandelion dinners are common around these parts in the week or two just before Easter. The idea is to pick the leaves before the blossoms emerge because then they are too bitter to enjoy. A fellow who was involved with making ham-n-dandelion dinner for 300 people admitted that his group buys the dandelion commercially. I’m sure there are a lot of country people and Amish that pick their own dandelion leaves.

Dandelion salad is a leafy salad with a hot dressing. Hot bacon dressing gives a nice flavor and wilts the greens just enough to soften them a little…a real Spring time treat.

Coltsfoot Going to Seed by the Road

Image via Wikipedia Coltsfoot

The bright yellow roadside flowers of Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, have long faded away for another year. This Spring Coltsfoot bloomed during the last two weeks of March and the first week of April in South-Central Pennsylvania.

The yellow composite flowers remind one of dandelions, and so do the seed heads. After the flowers are visited by their pollinators the flowers produce their seeds in round heads, just like a dandelion, although the seed heads may be more compact in shape and not quite as round.

Dandelion-like seed heads of coltsfoot flowers.
Dandelion-like seed heads of coltsfoot flowers.

All it takes is a gust of wind or physical disturbance from a passerby to disperse the seeds of Coltsfoot. (Photo taken 18Apr2010.)

The fluffy seed head will stand easily a foot tall, so they are usually taller than dandelion seed heads that so many people hate to see in their lawns.

The hoof-shaped leaves of Coltsfoot will continue to grow throughout the spring and summer until they are quite large, even larger than your hand.

Coltsfoot seed head and leaves.
Coltsfoot seed head and leaves.

Seed heads and leaves of Coltsfoot. Photo taken 2May2010.

Dandelion seed head and leaves.
Dandelion seed head and leaves.

Dandelion seed heads are completely spherical and their jagged leaves are easy to spot. Photo taken 2May2010.

Because they have very different leaf shapes no one should mistake dandelion for coltsfoot should they be interested in collecting seeds for their own dispersal.

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Yellow Coltsfoot Blooms and Hoof-shaped Leaves

Coltsfoot is still blooming in places along roadsides in Pennsylvania. Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, could be considered a Spring Ephemeral flower, but that term is usually reserved for woodland flowers that have a very short life cycle with a narrow window to bloom.

The Spring Ephemerals only receive enough sunlight to bloom after it gets warm enough in late winter and early spring up until the time when the trees develop their leaves. Once the forest canopy is filled in not enough light gets to the forest floor for these small herbaceous plants to continue flowering.

Typically, you’ll see coltsfoot along the road or trail side where it can get enough sunlight to develop its leaves. The leaves will stick around for most of the summer, so the life-cycle for coltsfoot is too long for it to be considered a true Spring ephemeral, but it does bloom in very early Spring, when the ephemeral flowers are blooming. Coltsfoot is a perennial that will return year after year. (Photos taken 1 April 2010.)

coltsfoot flower heads lifting up to the sun
coltsfoot flower heads lifting up to the sun

Note that some of the flower heads are stilled bowed down from the night. These flower heads will also rise up once they receive enough sun.

coltsfoot blooms open with the sunlight
The left photo shows coltsfoot flowers closed in the late afternoon and the right photo shows the same blossoms opening up in the morning sunshine.
Coltsfoot leaves growing by April 1
Coltsfoot leaves growing by April 1. Note the red-circled areas that highlight the hoof-shaped leaves.
coltsfoot flower heads open and closed
Coltsfoot flower heads open and closed. Note the very narrow ray flowers, maroon cast to scales on flower stems, and bowed heads of closed blossoms.
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Coltsfoot, the Alien Cough Suppressant Plant

The Peterson Medicinal Plants Guide says that coltsfoot can be found from Nova Scotia south to New Jersey and west to Ohio and Minnesota. It is an alien plant, or one that is not native to America. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide simply marks it with an asterisk to note that it’s an alien plant.

Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, is native to parts of Europe and Asia. It was most likely brought to North and South America by settlers who used the plant for its healing properties.

Coltsfoot has been used in folk medicine for a long time. Leaves and flowers are used in herbal tea as an expectorant and demulcent. The dried leaves are smoked for coughs and asthma.

Caution: compounds in wild coltsfoot have been found to be toxic to the liver.

The toxic compounds were more concentrated in the flower than in the leaf. Since we don’t know the dose that we’d get in a cup of tea from any particular plant, we probably should play it on the safe side and not drink the tea too often — and drink herbal tea made from the leaves, not flowers.

In the early summer we’ll be harvesting coltsfoot leaves for a Soothing Throat Tea.

Here’s a photo of coltsfoot leaves taken on 25 Jun 2007. They get pretty big at about 8-10 inches long by 6-8 inches wide in a scalloped, horseshoe shape.

Coltsfoot leaves grow in a horseshoe shape.
Coltsfoot leaves grow up to 10 inches long by 8 inches wide in a horseshoe shape.

Places for more research on Coltsfoot medicinal uses:

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Coltsfoot – Identifying the Roadside Dandelion

Blooming coltsfoot is another sign of Spring. Coltsfoot only blooms in very early Spring in Pennsylvania, during the last week of March and the first week of April. I first saw them blooming on March 24th this year and expect them to continue blooming for another week.

Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, can be mistaken for a dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, at first glance. Closer inspection shows the flower head is similar to dandelion, but the leaves of coltsfoot are quite distinct. Can’t show the leaves just yet as they haven’t emerged. That’s one big difference between coltsfoot and dandelion, dandelion leaves appear before the flower does. Another difference is that the dandelions aren’t blooming yet. So, near the end of March you’re likely to find dandelion leaves but no flowers, and coltsfoot flowers, but no leaves.

Single coltsfoot flower on the forest floor near the lane.
Single coltsfoot flower on the forest floor near the lane.

Coltsfoot flowers are composites of yellow, just like the dandelion, but the rays are thinner and more delicate-looking in the coltsfoot. Once the flower is pollinated, the resulting seeds are arranged in a fluffy ball, just like a dandelion, and its seeds are dispersed by the wind, too.

Coltsfoot flower stem with linear bracts of maroon color.
Coltsfoot flower stem with linear bracts of maroon color.

Note the small bracts or scales along the flower stem. These inch-long bracts are held close to the flower stem and are maroon to brown.

The true leaves are supposedly shaped like that of a young horse’s hoof, thus the name coltsfoot, but I don’t see the resemblance. Leaves are heart-shaped at the base and emerge after the flowering is all but finished. Leaves continue to grow larger for a couple weeks more. The coltsfoot leaves will finish out the summer looking like little canopies all along the roadside where the flowers once bloomed.

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