This past week, my fellow followers of the witchy ways and I prepared to celebrate Imbolc. For those of you not familiar, Imbolc is the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. In the snow-swept places in the world, in the early agricultural days of our ancestors, it was also when livestock such as sheep started having babies again, bringing with them the promise of food and fertility, and the opening of new days. In some ways, Imbolc (also known as Candlemas or St. Brigid’s Day in the Christian calendar) can be seen as an “extension” of the Yule celebration: during this time we again look towards longer days and celebrate new growth and new beginnings. But it is also a time to start putting into action the intentions we set at the Solstice, to get busy making plans and to prepare for the seasons ahead. The rituals, traditions and history of Imbolc are rich and lovely, and to go into depth on all of them would be a fine writing indeed. However, right now, I want to talk specifically about one special symbol of the season that has worked its way back into my memory as I prepared for the holiday this week. That is Coltsfoot, and I want to bring it to the forefront of our minds for a moment.
Let me preface this by saying that as an herbalist and a believer in magic, I stopped believing in coincidences a long time ago. With plants in particular, they tend to come into our lives as we need them. Let me also say that my stepson has had a cough for almost a month now, a pleasure which he has also graciously shared with my stepdaughter and I, although his has taken the cake for longest continual hacking. To me, the nurse practitioner, herbalist and mom who has been trying to figure out what the heck to do about it, it makes perfect sense that as I drew Imbolc rituals into my thinking, it was Coltsfoot in particular that came with them.
Traditionally and magically seen as sacred to St. Brigid, Coltsfoot is a lovely little plant. Unlike many other species, the flowers of Coltsfoot bloom very early and usually come and go before the rest of the plant matures. This could by why it is so strongly associated with this time of year – there is sometimes still snow on the ground when we see Coltsfoot flowers, and it is one of the earliest floral indicators of the coming fertile seasons (think of Coltsfoot flowers like the baby lambs of the plant world). It should be no wonder then that they often find their way into celebrations that mark, with respect to Spring, that we are “almost sort of getting there”.
Botanically, Coltsfoot has another name, in Latin, Tussilago farfala. It’s not a coincidence that the Latin word for cough is tussis, which of course has worked its way into to the names of some of our modern cough medicines as well. Coltsfoot is native to Europe but naturalized here in North America. Like so many other plants we commonly use in medicine, Coltsfoot likes to grow in disturbed soil and roadsides, choosing, as it were, to be close to humans. The name “Coltsfoot” primarily comes from the look of the leaf, popping up in a distinctly horseshoe shape quite some time after the flowers appear in early Spring. The leaves are a bit wooly, with little white hairs on either side. It is similar in this way to Mullein, another herb with great use in conditions of the lungs, and another instance of “no coincidences”: often plants look like the organ systems they love, and the fuzzies on Coltsfoot and Mullein should be reminiscent of the cilia in our respiratory tracts.
The taste of Coltsfoot leaves is overwhelmingly bitter, the leaves being the part of the plant we primarily use in medicine. The flowers can be used as well, but since there can be up to several months between the floral blooms and the appearance of the leaves, the parts are gathered separately and then combined once both have properly dried. It should be noted that some of the alkaloids in Coltsfoot have been found to be hepatotoxic (potentially damaging to the liver), but according to Matt Wood, it “seems to lack a delivery system to get them into the body” and notes that “these alkaloids are not extracted from Coltsfoot in water, so the herbal tea is an effective method for use”. We do not often use the tincture.
A quick Materia Medica on Coltsfoot:
Energetics: cool, dry/moist
Qualities: bitter, astringent
Actions: expectorant (helps you cough things up)
Organ trophisms: lungs, throat
Note that like the mints with their ability to both warm and cool, Coltsfoot also falls into some contradictions in its ability to both dry and moisten. This is primarily due to the kind of lung conditions it is suited to, ie., deep-seated mucus that is old, caked-on and adherent to the tissues creating a chronic heat often paired with inflammation in the throat and lungs. The type of cough that results depends on how successful the body has been at bringing up the buried mucus and how much crap has been flowing into the lungs due to the inflammatory process itself. Therefore, the person can present with a dry, hot cough or a wet, sticky, gross one and Coltsfoot is appropriate either way. The cooling properties of Coltsfoot work to sooth the inflammation created by repeated friction in the throat and lungs. By injecting moisture into old, stuck, dried out mucus, Coltsfoot frees it from the tissues so it can be properly coughed out, therefore allowing the cough to finally end. Once all of this happens, the dry, hot cough has been soothed and moistened, the wet, sticky, gross one has been successfully cleared out and the inflammation that wasn’t making anyone’s life easier has been quelled. Not so contradictory after all.
I think its worth talking about the taste. Coltsfoot is not pleasant as a tea. Right now I am picturing how that conversation would go between my eight-year-old stepson and I, and it would be hard for me to ask him to drink something that I myself don’t even like to drink. However, as I mentioned before, taking this plant as a tea is important to keep it safe, and there is another advantage to it as well - since we are trying here to treat the mucus membranes in the throat, actually coating those membranes with plant-infused liquid becomes important. Therefore, a capsule or tincture is most likely less effective than a tea anyway. Is is always possible to add maple syrup or honey to the hot tea, but if you’ve got a kiddo that wont drink hot tea or you’ve got a hot, inflamed throat and you’d rather wake up tomorrow with your face nailed to the table than drink something hot, I’ve got a couple herbal life hacks for you:
1. Allow the tea to cool in the fridge or outside overnight and add it to juice
2. Make Coltsfoot tea - infused ice cubes or popsicles that have a fair amount of honey added to them
3. Take store-bought ice pops and mash them up in a bowl with some Coltsfoot tea and then re-freeze them
While kids are usually used to medicine tasting bad, they are not always used to needing to “sip” on medicine over a period of time instead of swallowing it once and as fast as physically possible. I find that popsicles can both sooth the throat and slow down the ingestion process a little. Be careful though - repeated cold exposure in the throat can slow healing, so this shouldn’t be done over and over. I’d start with two popsicles a day and see how things go. Don’t be afraid to throw some mullein or horehound in there as well, in fact I recommend it. Coltsfoot leaves can also be dried and smoked by folks who are already smokers and who’s lungs are having a hard time. The dried herb can also be burned in smudging rituals as it, like mullein, is an herb well suited to the cleansing of the Air element.
Let’s go back to magic for a minute. All plants are magical, but sometimes their magic is stronger at different times of year, at different times in our lives or in different places in the world. These are the times to connect with them best. If and when you come across Coltsfoot in the early Spring, I encourage you to sit with it a while. For me, plants like Coltsfoot, dandelion and violet are holy at this time of year because they are signals and symbols of a deeper spiritual change, but you don’t need to share my faith in order to experience the magic inherent in connecting with place and with time. Sometimes the world feels like a really big, really foreign place - the limitations of our own humanity, what we can and cannot control, what we can and cannot do anything about, it can make our experience feel insignificant, helpless at best and hopeless at worst. Sit with a plant. Sit with a plant when that plant and you are trying to figure life out on this planet at the same time and in the same place. Remember that we are all allies here, on this small earth. Remember that we as humans are just as fragile, just as strong, just as small and just as important as the other living things around us. We are just as rooted in place, and that connection between ourselves, our time and our environment is special and significant. If Coltsfoot can spread itself into the soil and into the lungs to release the old and help carry in the new, then maybe we can do it too, even if it sometimes feels like the contribution is modest and the effect is small. Nothing is small with the plants. Let them show you how.
A blessed Imbolc to all you humans out there - I hope this time of transition guides you to thoughts of dreams, and I hope that remembering Coltsfoot helps you to make space in your life for them to come to fruition. Hold the lessons from the past, breath them out, allow your lungs to expand again, and take a new step forward.