Mugwort Chronicles

Western Coltsfoot Petasites palmatus


Several weeks ago I enjoyed a day off work by becoming re-acquainted with a lovely state park not far from my house. The day was pleasantly warm and sunny for March. As I wandered alongside the Lewis River, I was startled by the appearance of Western Coltsfoot, right there next to the path.

Western Coltsfoot belongs to the Asteraceae or sunflower family and is one of our earliest blooming native plants here in the Pacific Northwest. The plant sends up stalks of white to pink flowers before the leaves make their debut, earning its colloquial name, “son before the father”.  The leaves are basil shaped with five to seven lobes, green and hairless on top with a soft, white wooly underside.

It is the way the young, small leaves are folded, vaguely resembling a horse’s hoof, which gave rise to the plant’s common name. As the plant matures, the leaves can become quite large. In fact, its name, Petasites is derived from the Greek word for a large, brimmed hat; palmatus means palm (palm of the hand).

Western Coltsfoot is usually found in moist to wet forests, in clearings, along roadways or in other disturbed areas. When I first met this plant several years ago while hiking with my herbal study group, our instructor pointed out a stand of Western Coltsfoot growing along the stony edge of a small stream. He no sooner remarked how the plants prefer growing in disturbed areas when a small landslide shifted the rocks along the edge of the stream. This image has left an unforgettable reminder of Western Coltfoot’s preferred habitat.

Historically, the large leaves of Western Coltsfoot were used by indigenous people to cover berries in steaming baskets [Pojar]. Medicinally, the leaves were used to treat respiratory problems such as bronchial congestion and coughs and is an excellent expectorant.

Perhaps you have heard of Coltsfoot, but know it by a different botanical name, Tussilago farfara. This Coltsfoot, also a member of the Asteraceae family, is usually found in the eastern portion of the North America. It also has a flower stalk preceding its leaves, but its flowers are yellow. Tussilago farfara is used to treat respiratory conditions, as well.

Coltsfoot leaves are used in making infusions, tinctures, syrups and lozenges. Susun Weed has an excellent tutorial showing how the flowers of Tussilago farfara can be used to make an infused honey to treat coughs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRZDRdOvn2E

In his book, Stalking the Healthful Herbs, Euell Gibbons noted that in the past Coltsfoot was so esteemed for its medicinal properties that it came to symbolize all herbal medicines. When much of the population in France was illiterate, a Coltsfoot leaf would be painted on the door of apothecaries to let folks know that herbal medicines were sold there.

Today, Coltsfoot is not used as extensively as it was years ago due to concern for potential liver damage from PLAs-pyrrolizidine alkaloids. PLAs are found in a number of plants, including Comfrey. Some herbalist believe it is best to avoid using plants containing PLAs for internal use (this is not an issue when these plants are used externally). Other herbalists believe that when plants containing PLAs are used with care and respect, as in the manner they were traditionally utilized, there is little concern for harm.

When our class harvested Petasites palmatus leaves to make tincture and cough syrup, we waited until June-July when the leaves had grown quite huge. At this time in the plant’s life cycle, the amount of PLAs in the leaves is much less than when the leaves are young and small. PLAs help deter pests from consuming young plants, allowing them to mature. One large leaf was sufficient to make approximately eight ounces of tincture.

If you decide to include Coltsfoot in your herbal repertoire, as with all plant medicines, do your research to understand its proper use, dosage, as well as contraindications. Coltsfoot should only be used for acute respiratory conditions, and not for chronic issues or for a prolonged period (no longer than four to six weeks). Also avoid using with individuals who have conditions affecting the liver, such as cirrhosis and avoid use during pregnancy.

This information is offered for educational purposes and is not intended to take the place of personalized medical care from a trained healthcare professional. The reader assumes all risk when utilizing the above information.

Copyright© 2013 Louise Harmon

All Rights Reserved



-Drum, Ryan. Petasites spp (Butterbur) Wild Cultivation:

 http://www.ryandrum.com/petasites.htm  Accessed 19 April 2013

-Gibbons, E. (1973). Stalking the Healthful Herbs. New York. David McKay Company.

-Goldstar, R. (2001). Family Herbal. North Adams, Massachusetts. Storey Books.

-Pojar, J., Mackinnon, A. (2004). Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Auburn, WA: Lone

Pine Publishing

-Wikipedia: Western Coltsfoot: http://www.oregonwild.org/about/blog/wildflower-of-the-week-5/?searchterm=western%20coltsfoot  Accessed 16 April 2013