Coltsfoot (botanical name, Tussilago farfara L.) is one of nature's strange creations that entail placing the cart before the horse. Especially, going by the herb's old Latin name ‘Filius ante patrem', it denotes ‘the son coming before the father'. Coltsfoot bears flat yellow-hued flower heads quite early in the spring and once the blooms wither away, the herb produces wide, hoof-shaped, jade color leaves. This plant is quite widespread and does not have any preference regarding the soil it is cultivated on.
The botanical name of Tussilago farfara L. (coltsfoot) aptly mirrors the plant's therapeutic use. As the Latin term tussilago denotes cough, the dried out leaves as well as the flower heads of this plant have been used to treat this condition since early days. Coltsfoot belongs to the member of plant family Asteraceae. It is a short, perennially growing woolly herb which bears flowering stems having a solitary yellow flower head at the terminal. As aforementioned, when the flower has withered away, leaves whose shape has resemblance to hoof appear on the stems. Although coltsfoot is indigenous to Europe, this herb is widespread in places that are sandy and moist in the north-eastern and north-central region of the United States as well as the southern regions of Canada. As the blossoms as well as the leaves of coltsfoot emerge in dissimilar periods, they are harvested and sold separately too.
Since long, coltsfoot has been an extremely preferred herbal medication for treating coughs and bronchial congestion. The leaves and also the roots of this herb form an active ingredient in a whole host of patented tea blends which are available commercially in Europe to treat cough and bronchial blockages. Smoking coltsfoot is not a sensible remedy, as the main active element of this herb is mucilage that soothes the throat. When the leaves of the herb are burnt, the mucilage is obliterated and the impact of smoke on mucous membranes that are irritated from before worsens the condition of the patient. In other words, it augments the irritation of the mucous membranes. Similarly, if you inhale the vapor from coltsfoot leaves added to boiling water is not of any use. The helpful mucilage is unstable and will not get to the affected tissues.
Although coltsfoot is primarily used to treat bronchial problems in herbal medicine, the herb also has a number of other therapeutic uses. The herb is a very useful demulcent (any substance or medicine that causes soothing) and expectorant and is among the most preferred remedies in Europe to cure chest complaints. Compared to the flowers, the leaves of coltsfoot are a favorite in Europe since they contain lesser concentration of the pyrrolizidine alkaloids. On the contrary, in China, people have a preference for the flowers. In any case, both the leaves as well as the flowers of coltsfoot are taken internally in the form of decoction to treat chest problems. When coltsfoot is used in the form of a therapeutic cigarette or syrup, it helps to alleviate the symptoms of asthma. In effect, the herb is used in the form of a particular cure for spasmodic coughs. This herb can be taken along with other herbs like thyme, licorice and black cherry, all of which combine well with coltsfoot. Coltsfoot has been categorized as a ‘warming' herb in China, as the herb facilitates easing wheezing and coughing.
As mentioned earlier, coltsfoot is more popular as an herbal medication to cure bronchial congestions and coughs. Precisely speaking, the botanical name of the herb ‘Tussilago' actually denotes ‘cough dispeller'. Since the ancient times, coltsfoot has been employed by people for these remedial uses as well as to alleviate other respiratory problems. The major elements contained by coltsfoot include bitter glycosides, mucilage and tannins all of which contribute to the herb's anti-inflammatory attribute and make the herb effective for treating coughs.
In addition to the above-mentioned constituents, coltsfoot also contains harmful pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are known to be toxic for the liver. Nevertheless, a major portion of these alkaloids are obliterated when the herb is boiled to prepare a decoction. The herb is considered to be safe when taken in small doses.
It may be noted that coltsfoot is especially effective in treating chronic coughs, like in the case of silicosis or emphysema. While the leaves and flowers of the herb are generally used for therapeutic reasons, at times, the root of coltsfoot is also used for medicinal purpose.
Apart from providing relief from coughs and bronchial congestions, coltsfoot is also effective in treating other medical conditions, such as headaches, asthma, bronchitis, whooping cough, laryngitis as well as blockage of the nasal passage. Coltsfoot flowers are also used in making poultice, which is applied for relief from skin complaints, for instance eczema, sores, inflammations and even ulcers.
Habitat and cultivation
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara L.) is native to Europe as well as the northern regions of Asia and over the years, the species has been naturalized in North America, where it is found growing commonly along the roads and in open areas. The blooms of coltsfoot are collected during the later part of winter/spring, while the leaves are gathered during the summer.
A study undertaken by scientists in Japan has shown a number of somewhat concerning data regarding coltsfoot. The scientists examined the dehydrated young blooms since they are the plant's part which is extensively employed in the form of herbal medication in Japan. They discovered that the herb contains a trivial amount (about 0.015 per cent) of a chemical substance known as hepatotoxic (toxic for the liver) pyrrolizidine alkaloid senkirkine. When the scientists fed mice with food enclosing various quantities of coltsfoot, the ones which were given high intensity (over 4 per cent) of the chemical substance developed tumors that were cancerous in nature in their liver. At the end of the research, the scientists came to the conclusion that it is obvious that tender flowers of coltsfoot prior to blooming possessed carcinogenic (any substance that has a propensity to develop cancer) properties, demonstrating elevated incidence (about 8/ 12, 66.6 per cent) of hemangioendothelial (a malignant tumor developing from connective tissues) sarcoma of the liver.
The information presented above emphasize on the deadliness of pyrrolizidine alkaloids having an unsaturated (able to form carbon bonds) pyrrolizidine nucleus even when the concentration is very low. In fact, scientists have identified two alkaloids of this type - senecionine and senkirkine - in the leaves and flowers of coltsfoot and they can be extracted in hot water without any difficulty. It has been said that continuous or long-standing exposure to such pyrrolizidine alkaloids may result in a collective outcome.
There was time when scientists had anticipated for some time that pyrrolizidine alkaloids may be absent in the remaining parts of coltsfoot plant. Nevertheless, ensuing studies conducted with the leaves of coltsfoot have revealed that they also contained the pyrrolizidine alkaloid senkirkine.
Hence, it is advisable that people enduring throat irritations should not consider herbal preparations with coltsfoot as a safe and appropriate remedy any more. It has been established that the flowers, leaves or the roots of this plant cannot be used safely for therapeutic reasons. In case such patients require any herbal demulcent (any substance that causes soothing), they may consider taking herbal remedies prepared with marshmallow root or slippery elm bark. Since long, both these herbs have been having official recognition as they are listed in The National Formulary (NF) as well as The United States Pharmacopeia (USP).
Researches undertaken with coltsfoot have revealed that the whole herb enhances the immune system. A study undertaken with 36 patients enduring bronchial asthma in China has showed that the condition of about 75 per cent of these people had improved. However, the anti-asthmatic impact of the herb was temporary.
Chemical analysis of coltsfoot has revealed that the herb encloses flavonoids, approximately 8 per cent mucilage (comprising polysaccharides), pyrrolizidine alkaloids, about 10 per cent tannins, zinc and vitamin C. The pyrrolizidine alkaloids are hepatotoxic, denoting that they are likely to have a toxic effect. However, they are generally obliterated when the herb parts containing them are boiled to prepare a decoction. The polysaccharides present in coltsfoot possess anti-inflammatory as well as immune-stimulant properties. Similarly, the flavonoids are also anti-inflammatory as well as antispasmodic.
Coltsfoot is used for therapeutic purposes in the form of a decoction as well as tincture. The decoction of this herb is used to treat coughs as well as other chest problems. Coltsfoot is often blended or taken in conjugation with other herbs in the form of tobacco in an herbal cigarette to provide relief from convulsions attributable to bronchitis and asthma. The tincture prepared with coltsfoot is taken in dosage of 1 ml (or 20 drops) twice every day to augment the health of the lungs. The tincture is especially effective for treating coughs when it is used in the form of a cough syrup. In Chinese Traditional medicine, the dosage of coltsfoot tincture is 1.5 - 9 g (or 1/16 oz to 1/2 oz).
Side effects and cautions
People taking herbal preparations with coltsfoot should be cautious regarding their use for any overdose of the remedy may result in toxic reactions. This is primarily owing to the fact that the herb contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which are known to have detrimental effects on the liver (hepatotoxic). In effect, Germany has already prohibited the use of the herb for internal usage. Owing to high content of these harmful alkaloids in the flowers of this herb, they ought to be always essentially used under the supervision of a physician. Despite the fact that the leaves of the herb do not contain as high concentration of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, they also should not be taken without consulting a doctor and under his supervision.
How it works in the body
The flavonoids present in coltsfoot possess anti-inflammatory as well as antiseptic properties that help in providing relief from convulsions in the lungs in patients suffering from asthma and bronchitis attacks, thereby facilitating breathing. The polysaccharides present in the herb possess anti-inflammatory attributes that aid in relaxing the aggravated tissues of the lungs. In addition, the polysaccharides also work in the form of an expectorant and help to force out any surplus phlegm and mucous. Working in concert, flavonoids and polysaccharides present in coltsfoot enhance the immune system as well as encourage a vigorous respiratory system. While the pyrrolizidine alkaloids are believed to be toxic for the liver, by and large, they are obliterated when boiled to prepare a decoction.
The flowers and leaves of coltsfoot are used for therapeutic purpose in a number of ways, including decoction, tincture, poultice, and syrup.
To prepare this syrup you require:
To begin with, boil the herbal ingredients in four cups of water for about 15 minutes, strain the liquid and add two pounds of natural honey to it. Subsequently, melt the honey in the mixture by simmering it at a low temperature for about 20 minutes. Cool the mixture and then bottle the syrup. Store the syrup in refrigerator for use when necessary. However, it is important that you consume the syrup within three months' of its preparation. For best results, take one tablespoonful or 15 ml of the syrup twice to thrice every day. Since, the remedy tastes sweet, it is also liked by children.
It may be noted that this decongestive syrup is most helpful when the three herbs included in it are picked fresh, while the cultured plants, such as licorice and marshmallow, have been dried before making the remedy.