All About Coltsfoot (Petasites palmatus)

Coltsfoot PNW Wild Edible and Medicinal

Coltsfoot, or Western Coltsfoot, Petasites palmatus, is a funny little plant that sends up its pompom tipped flower stalks before the leaves barely start to grow. We see it popping up in early spring across the Pacific Northwest from the northern reaches of California on up into Alaska and over to western Montana. It loves the wet places, the ditches and cool hillsides seeps sometimes growing on practically vertical cliffs as long as those cliffs are shady and wet. Coltsfoot provides soil structure and even erosion control to otherwise unstable soils.

Coltsfoot (Petasites palmatus)

Identifying Coltsfoot

The palmatus variety that is most common is easily identified with or without flowers by the large palmate leaves that grow up to a foot across but I usually find them about 4-8 inches in width. Coltsfoot leaves are bright green on top and silvery underneath. The plants are seldom found alone but they like to grow in a crowd. You will most likely spot them in large stands.

Coltsfoot’s flowering stalks emerge early in spring before the leaves reach their full size. Flowering stalks typically are about 12 inches in height, but I have seen them reach up to 18 inches. Stalks are topped with usually white, sometimes trending to purpleish, pom poms of multiple small flowers.

Colstfoot (Petasites palmatus) Medicinal Uses

This wild medicine is most known for relieving respiratory ailments. Coltsfoot provides soothing mucilage as well as antispasmodic and nerve sedative propeties which is why, among other ailments, it is found to be helpful in calming the lungs and soothing a cough. It provides no help against infection, but it does treat the symptoms. It will help the patient’s throat feel not so scratchy, the chest to hurt less, and provide relief for an annoying cough so maybe they can get a little rest.

According Michael Moore in ‘Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West’, Coltsfoot’s medicinal uses include;

  • tea used as an expectorant and cough supressant
  • maybe helpful as an antihistamine or at least to relieve the symptoms
  • relieves respiratory ailmants such as chest colds, asthma, whooping cough, and viral pneumonia
  • antispasmodic
  • used externally in a decoction to relieve arthritis
  • first aid as a poultice for scrapes, sprains, and other minor wounds to mildly relieve pain by sedating the nerves, lessening inflamation, and preventing bacterial infection
  • as a tincture or tea to lessen spasms of the stomach, galbladder, or colon
  • for those who already smoke… smoked to relieve chronic cough

Coltsfoot would go nicely in a cold remedy tea blend, or in a tea blend with other herbs that target a nagging cough. I have yet to use coltsfoot this way but I intend to. If you try it in an herbal tea blend, let me know what you blend it with and how it works for you!

Edible Uses

For the longest time, I did not realize that Coltsfoot was edible! That is until this spring when I cracked open Gregory Tilford’s ‘Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West’ which is quickly becoming one of my favorite wild food foraging go-to guides.

Coltsfoot PNW Wild Edible and Medicinal

Use coltsfoot as a potherb, use the leaves like you would spinach or other greens, and the flowering stalks in stir-fries.

We find that the stalks have a mildly pungent radish-like flavor. The flowering tips have a more potent flavor than the stems.

Coltsfoot Prepped for Stir Fry
Coltsfoot flowers and stems, chopped and ready to be added to our Fried Rice

Try chopping some up for your next stir fry. The first time we ate it, we used about 12-14 stalks chopped up in a batch of one of my favorite main dish dinners, fried rice. So good. Everyone loved it.

I think the radish-like flavor would lend itself well as a substitute for daikon radish in a batch of homemade kimchi. I haven’t tried this yet, but I am going to.

BE AWARE: While coltsfoot is edible, it should not be consumed in large quantities. In other words, don’t eat a pound of it every day. The young leaves contain a small amount of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can be harmful to the liver in large quantities. These alkaloids are greatly lessened in mature leaves, roots, and flowering stalks.

When and How to Harvest Coltsfoot

In the spring, March-April, when flower stalks are developing but before the flowers start to fade, collect the full flowering stalks. Cut off at ground level and store in a plastic bag (to conserve moisture and keep them from wilting) in the fridge until ready to use.

Later, from June on until the leaves are too aged to be nice for consumption, harvest the mature leaves by cutting them off at ground level. If you intend to dry these, bundle them by the handful secured with rubber bands at the base. I find the bundling is easiest as you harvest them. Then take them home and hang them on drying racks until dry and ready for storage or to be made into herbal tea.

If you will be cooking with the leaves, don’t bother bundling them. Simply transfer the leaves to a plastic bag to keep them from wilting and store them in a cool place until ready to use.

References

Moore, M. (2011). Medicinal plants of the Pacific West. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.

Tilford, G. L. (1997). Edible and medicinal plants of the West. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publ. Co.

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