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A ROADSIDE COUGH MEDICINE / Jack Sanders IN NEW ENGLAND the first beacons of spring rise from the ground at just about the equinox, and among those in the forefront are the yellow and orange heads of the coltsfoot. Big, bright bunches of them offer assurance that the drabness of winter is ending, and that color is returning to the land. Commonly seen along roadsides in northern states, the coltsfoot is a European import that grows in some of our poorer and poorly drained sous. One sizable patch near my house does well in a roadside shoulder composed chiefly of salty highway sand from years of winter storms. The plants' only demands seem to be open sunlight and moist ground. The flower is often mistaken for the dandelion, to which it bears a strong resemblance at a distance. But the coltsfoot's flower is constructed somewhat differently from that of its weedy cousin. Many yellow rays surround an orangish disk, typical of the composite family of plants. Its stout stem is covered with hairy, scale-like projections instead of being slender and smooth like the dandelion's. One of A Kind In fact, no flower is really Uke the coltsfoot. It is one of those plants that is the only species within its genus, making Tussilago farfara a member of a "monotypic" genus. Its native territory is northern Europe, North Africa, and Asia. In North America, it seems to be marching from the Atlantic Coast states and provinces westward into Minnesota and beyond, favoring cooler climates and blooming in March or, if the winter has been harsh or late, in early April. The roundish leaves appear later in the spring, so much later that by midsummer and early fall, when they're still up, few people associate the leaves with the flowers that appeared months earlier. Their shape—rather large and similar to the hoofprint of an unshod horse—has earned the plant its name as well as a bad reputation among farmers in England where the coltsfoot sometimes infests plowlands. The wide leaves come up around the same time as grain, and can blanket large areas of the fields. But coltsfoot has been much better known as a friend of man. In fact, in 1971, Czechoslovakia issued a postage stamp in its honor, and The Missouri Review · 89 for many years, the shape of its leaf was the symbol of apothecary shops in France. For centuries, a concoction from it was a popular remedy for the cough; the plant contains much mucilage, which coats and soothes an irritated throat. The generic name is based on the Latin, tussis, and means "cough dispeUer." (Robitussin, the patent cough medicine, uses the same root word.) When they came down with a cough or cold, youngsters in New England used to be given coltsfoot candies, made by boiling down a mixture of fresh leaves and water, removing the leaves, adding lots of sugar, boiUng again tiU there's a thick syrup, and dropping spoonsful of it into cold water. In a popular liquid form of the medicine, a mixture of leaves and water was boUed down, and honey added for flavoring. Strange as it may seem, asthmatics used to smoke coltsfoot to gain reUef. "The fume of the dried leaves taken through a funnell or tunnell, burned upon coles, effectually helpeth those that are troubled with the shortnesse of breath, and fetch their winde thicke and often," said Gerard.1 Gypsies long used the dried leaves as a tobacco. The leaves were important in the concoction of an English pipe mixture caUed "British Herb Tobacco." WhUe it was employed mainly for respiratory problems, Culpeper listed all sorts of maladies it would address, among them "St. Anthony's fire, and burnings, and [it] is singular good to take away wheals and small pushes that arise through heat, as also the burning heat of the pUes or privy parts, cloths wet therein being thereunto applied."2 It has also been used to treat diarrhea, insect bites, inflammations, leg ulcers, and phlebitis. Dried coltsfoot leaves were brewed as an aromatic tea, and the ashes obtained by burning the leaves were once used to season foods. Modern research...


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