Yesterday I found the first scaly-stemmed flower of Coltsfoot pushing itself up through the disturbed ground of a plantation in Bankfoot. The plant, also called “Son-afore-the-Father” due to the fact that the flowers appear many weeks before the hoof-shaped, hairy leaves, is a spring herald. It’s particularly welcomed here because by mid-February I have always been caught by one of those coughs that cling to the tail of a winter cold and threaten to sit on your chest for months. This year is no exception.
Coltsfoot leaves and the sunny, dandelion-like flowers are equally useful for treating coughs, though personally I can’t bear to pick the brave flowers and collect and dry leaves all summer instead to see me through. They can be made into a tea, or a decoction. Of old, they have been used in herbal tobacco, too, but it beats me how smoking anything can cure a cough, so I’ll stick to tea. It doesn’t have much flavour, so I add evergreen thyme (also good for coughs!) in winter, and in summer a few leaves of mint, lemon balm or meadowsweet. Fresh coltsfoot leaves can also be used as a vegetable and even yield a yellow-green dye.
This winter, thanks to an excellent evening class in herbal medicine I have discovered another cough-soothing delight – liquorice. I have never liked liquorice allsorts, and for all I respect the monks of Pontefract, their “cakes” and the long tradition of growing and processing liquorice in that district, NOTHING would have persuaded me to chew liquorice root if I’d known what it was. But the unprepossessing and rock-hard root is something else entirely. The flavour is sweet and delicate; I’ve been boiling chopped root for ten minutes, then adding coltsfoot leaves. On Bad Throat Days, in goes a spoonful of honey from my bees too. Liquorice has been used medicinally for over three thousand years, for constipation and stomach ulcers as well as bronchial complaints. It’s a substance called glycyrrhizin in the roots, sweeter by far than sugar, which accounts for its use in confectionery. I don’t know which bit makes foam, but it’s also used in fire extinguishers!
Coltsfoot is best gathered in the wild unless you have a large garden – it spreads most obligingly. Liquorice, a native of south-eastern Europe, is slow to germinate, the seeds are expensive, and it will take a while to produce worthwhile roots. But it has pretty foliage and pea-like flowers to enjoy while you are waiting, so is well worth growing.
Today, five inches of snow covered 2005’s first coltsfoot, and I’m still coughing, so spring had better get a move on. The hedgerow pharmacy is in demand!
© Margaret Lear, Bankfoot. Originally published in Comment, March 2005