Gardening Medicinal Plants Weeds

The First Weed of Spring?

By Larry Hodgson

I just know you’re so looking forward to this: the blooming of the first weed of spring!

Yes, the very first flower to bloom in many gardens is coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara). Native to Europe and western Asia, It’s now well established as a noxious weed all over the world.

Many people, in fact, possibly most, mistake it for a dandelion. And indeed, the yellow inflorescences certainly look a lot like dandelion blooms, but there is a huge difference. But where the leaves? Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) produce their rosette of toothed green leaves first, then the clusters of flowers appear. Coltsfoot looks leafless when it blooms. The large, broad, very undandelionlike leaves appear later.

Flowers of foalfoot (Tussilago farfara) showing the numerous scalelike leaves on their stem.
Photo: kostyuchenko, depositphotos

However, in fact, the small scales that cover the flower stems are tiny leaves. So, as it blooms, coltsfoot isn’t as leafless as it appears.

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is, in many areas, the very first flower of spring. Its charming yellow flowers emerge very early. Often in February in mild climates, yet as late as May in cold ones.

Coltsfoot seed head.
The seed head too looks a lot like that of a dandelion. Photo: Cbaile19, Wikimedia Commons

It’s not just the bright yellow blooms that resemble dandelion flowers. After they finish flowering, they also bear fluffy white seed heads like those of a dandelion. Add to that the fact the two plants belong to the same family, the Asteraceae, and you definitely have the potential for confusion.

This curious habit of blooming well before the foliage appears lead to the Romans calling coltsfoot Filius ante patrem (son before father).

Two Different Plants?

One clump of coltsfoot.
In leaf, coltsfoot looks nothing like a dandelion. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Coltsfoot flowers looking like dandelion flowers are doubly confuses a lot of people. When the leaves do appear, they think that the toothed more-or-less heart-shaped leaves belong to some other plant.

Butterbur in bloom near water.
Butterbur (Petasites hybrida) has similar leaves to coltsfoot and an equally weedy habit, but has rounder leaves and its blooms appear while the first leaves are forming. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At this stage, it’s easy to confuse coltsfoot with the butterbur (Petasites hybridus), because their leaves are similar. This is another common weed/medicinal plant, although t’s more common in Europe than North America. For a long time, the two plants confused even taxonomists. They originally called butterbur Tussilago hybrida, believing it to be a hybrid of coltsfoot. Today, we know that the name hybrida was a poor choice. That’s because, in spite of the name hybrida, butterbur is not a hybrid, but a species. And that coltsfoot and butterbur are only cousins several times removed.

Underside of coltsfoot leaf.
The underside of the leave is covered with white felt. Photo: Stefan. Lefnaer, Wickimedia Commons

The leaves are what give the plant the common name coltsfoot. With a bit of imagination, you can (sort of) see the shape as being that of a horse’s hoof… with teeth. To further distinguish coltsfoot from other pretenders, turn a leaf over. You’ll see they’re felty and white on the underside. The upper side too often has a bit of felty white hair. However, that’s most obvious on young leaves.

Botanical drawing of coltsfoot.
Botanical plate showing the various parts of coltsfoot. Illustration: Johan Georg Sturm, Wikimedia Commons

From Useful to Weedy

Coltsfoot is of Eurasian origin. European settlers introduced it into North and South America as a medicinal plant over a century ago. It has long since escaped culture and become a widespread weed, especially in clay and moist soils.

A pioneer plant, it often appears in disturbed soils, especially around construction sites. With its dense broad leaves, it chokes out native plants. It sometimes comes to cover vast surfaces to the exclusion of any other plant. It’s a sun lover, though. It therefore it tends to gradually disappear as trees and shrubs move in and create dense shade.

Medicinal Use

Coltsfoot tea in a transparent cup with flowers all around.
Coltsfoot is often used in medicinal treatments. Here, as coltsfoot tea. Photo: Tinieder, depositphotos

Coltsfoot has a long history of medicinal use, especially as an antitussive. In fact, the name Tussilago comes from the Latin tussis (cough) and agere (to chase), because it “chases coughs”.

Even today, the plant remains very popular in herbalism. Both fresh and dried leaves, rhizomes and flowers serve as antitussives, demulcents, expectorants and tonics. The flowers and young leaves are edible and you can even use them as vegetables.

However, all the parts contain alkaloids that are toxic to the liver. People with liver problems or pregnant or lactating women should not use coltsfoot. Nor is its long-term use recommended.

How to Control It

Coltsfoot colony of many plants.
Coltsfoot is a very dominant plant, spreading to cover vast surfaces. Photo: Ola Korica, depositphotos

Coltsfoot generally arrives in gardens through transported soil contaminated with rhizomes. But it can also spread through the air thanks to the silky hairs that carry the seed far and wide.

Once established, this spring-flowering weed expands via underground rhizomes. Since these can dip down to up to 10 feet (3 m) deep, obviously hoeing is not going to control coltsfoot. In fact, hoeing, cultivating or — worse yet! — using a rototiller often worsen the problem. That’s because those tools tend to chop the rhizomes into pieces, yet any piece left in the soil will produce a new plant. Thus, often the more you cultivate, the faster coltsfoot spreads.

You’ll have more success to cutting back every leaf you see, repeating again and again. Just snip each one off at the base. That prevents the plant from carrying on photosynthesis, its only source of energy. The inability to photosynthesize will gradually exhaust the rhizome.

Black tarp used to kill weeds.
Cover coltsfoot with an opaque tarpaulin or piece of carpet to kill unwanted rhizomes. Ill.: Claire Tourigny

Or, more simply, cover the ground with a black tarpaulin or piece of old carpet starting in the spring as the leaves of this weed emerge. Now, leave this opaque cover in place for at least one year. (Two years may be necessary if the plant is well-established.) Again, since it won’t be able to carry out photosynthesis, this will exhaust and kill the rhizomes.

Coltsfoot has the reputation of being difficult to kill with herbicides, but some people less environmentally concerned than myself have reported success by treating the young leaves with glyphosate.

So, is coltsfoot a beautiful harbinger of spring, a useful medicinal plant or a weed to eliminate? It’s all three, of course. How you see it depends on your attitude, your needs and your expectations.

Adapted from an article originally appearing in this blog on April 23, 2017.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

25 comments on “The First Weed of Spring?

  1. marianwhit

    To look at this from a different angle, you might want to ask yourself, “what impact does letting dandelions “go” have on the reproduction of native plants that feed other creatures like larval butterflies and moths (caterpillars)? This was an “eye opener” for me!

  2. I don’t have this one, but I do have my first two dandelions. I leave them there for the bees just in case they need a sip.

  3. Gee, I was not aware that it has potential to be such a weed. Dandelion can be a weed, particularly in lawns. However, coltsfoot is somewhat rare. I do not know why. It sometimes appears, but does not get aggressive enough to be a problem.

    • It’s probably weedier in a moister climate.

      • marianwhit

        And VERY difficult to remove once established…I have never completely killed a patch, and I have tried multiple times in multiple locations! I can keep it from taking over or reseeding new areas and push it back, making space for native plants to grow…imagine having to “make room” for the plants that evolved to live in those places!

      • Yes, and dandelion also happens to be weedier where it gets a bit more rain, like on the coast.

  4. marianwhit

    Herbalism is a wonderful study, but important to carefully research edibility…and palatability of plants extolled on social media by people of unknown training. Many, many plants I see recommended are edible…to a degree, and can be harmful to people with particular medical conditions or even if consumed in sufficient quantities. Plants high in oxalates, for example, are not recommended for people with kidney conditions. Also, when considering plants that are merely “thugs” or downright invasive, it is important to evaluate if you like it enough to eat it in sufficient quantity to keep it from taking over.

  5. Nice article. Thanks. Wow an alkaloid that is toxic to the liver. User beware. If there are no scientific studies or scholarly articles to prove medicinal benefits then I stay clear of these mythic medicinal claims.

  6. Marietta

    I have been battling bindweed for years. So here is another equivalent….perennial, deep root system, rhizomes and an import to boot!

  7. marianwhit

    Thanks Larry, for your impeccable research and descriptions. I will share this widely.

  8. farmerpam

    First sign of Spring! I never had Coltsfoot on my property, that is until last summer, I had gotten “free” fill from the town trucks and where they dumped is now covered with Coltsfoot. Luckily it’s way off and isolated from the rest of property. I walked around town and inspected other areas they are going to excavate and give away. Not interested, at all! I spied Japanese Knotweed and Goutweed. Just say no to free fill, lol!

  9. Wow, 2 years under cover to kill of the rhizomes? That’s a tough plant.

    • It’s the deep rhizomes that make the difference.

    • marianwhit

      This is the nature of invasive plants, and one reason people don’t see the problem…until they try to get rid of something that took over their garden or a naturally diverse area they once loved. In removing the coltsfoot that once dominated the edge of my brook (with about 4 other bad invasive plants introduced by a gardener who did not understand the plants she was introducing…a lovely person otherwise), I find the delightful return of raspberries, wild strawberries, ferns, sedges, native grasses, wild cherry, sumac, etc…and to see birds come and nest is the greatest reward for what, admittedly, is hard and endless work. I have a lot of work as I have 1,200 feet of open ditches and a dirt road, which is graded often, meaning invasive species are spread rapidly on my property.

      The best advice I could give is don’t let them establish, research and know any new plant you introduce for potential invasiveness or environmental harm, Prevention is FAR less expensive and hard on the body than trying to “put back” what was always there (I am trying to restore a lot of native plants into my existing garden and convert my lawn to native grasses and it is some of the most challenging gardening I have ever done. It is easy to see the native plants being overwhelmed. I try to advise people to garden where the ground has already been disturbed rather than clear areas already supporting our ecologies. I have experienced the loss of native bird species I love, and don’t wish to experience that again or contribute to declines that can lead to extinction. If we plant native species, they will come.

  10. Coltsfoot is blooming just now but it has to stay in its spot as there are woods right behind it and it is in a small run off ditch from my pond. It is great for the early pollinators! I’m not destroying it. Thanks for all the info on it though, love learning about plants.

    • marianwhit

      The seeds spread easily in the wind, like dandelions. We reap what we sow…or the invasive species we defend…to the detriment of our relations with our neighbors, water quality along brooks and streams, and the wild species other than generalist feeders (that is MANY species), as their obligate host/preferred food plants will disappear. One in four plant species growing uncontrolled in Canada is not native, substantially raising the cost of food production. Not all non-native plants cause harm, but many do and it is good to know about them. I am not picking on you, just trying to share what I know.

      Our native birds and butterfly numbers are dropping fast. The increasing dominance of non-native plants imported here (without the animals that prey on them or diseases etc. that keep them in check) is one reason for their decline, as they cannot simply start eating coltsfoot (dandelions) etc.

      Non-native plants can divert the bees from our native plants, meaning fewer native plants can reproduce, and accelerating the lack of appropriate food resources. Some people will prefer the cute yellow flowers to what evolved over 16,000 years (where I live), I guess, not me…I can’t imagine a garden that is not full of healthy birds and insects! I try to keep them in check by removing the flowers in the spring, drying out the rest of the plant until “crispy” and then it makes great compost.

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