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Country Diary: Plant is rich in minerals and trace elements

Coltsfoot
Coltsfoot

It was a joy to receive a beautiful hand-written letter from regular reader of ‘Country Diary’ Sheila Gray. Is the art of letter writing dying out? I do hope not, it’s so personal and friendly.

Sheila had followed up my mentioning a water vole having been seen when I walked down Peasholm Glen several years ago. She recently returned, and was lucky enough to stand and watch two water voles on the stream’s embankment scurrying in and out of water, and rushing between stream-side vegetation. Thank you so much Sheila for your valuable observations.

How grand to have the hours of daylight lengthening, and buds all around awakening from sleep. The hawthorn hedges are turning green once more, and hyacinths of pink, cream and blue, rescued from plant pots, are in full bloom in the garden border.

The severe cold spell held back the flowering of celandines recorded well before the new year, but now they glisten like gold, along roadside verges, along with swathes of welcome daffodils to cheer motorists and walkers alike.

One wild flower that will not be welcome in a local garden, is the coltsfoot. It inhabits all kinds of disturbed ground, often on the clay of fallen cliffs, and the garden I’ve mentioned is now carpeted in this creeping plant with upright flowering stems. Each stem has a number of purple-green scale leaves. The flowers burst upon the scene between February and April, as soon as a sunny day arrives. The sulphur yellow flowers appear before the leaves, and are composed of disc florets in the centre, whilst the outer florets have an extension on one side of the tube.

Coltsfoot is a plant rich in minerals and trace elements, especially calcium, copper, potassium, sulphur, magnesium and iron.

Such are its properties that the flowers were once painted above the door of a pharmacist’s shop in France to indicate the owner’s profession.

Insects help pollinate the flowers during daylight hours while they’re open. The resulting seeds are dispersed by long, hairy parachutes, making them widely distributed.

Don’t look for leaves until they’ve flowered. They are quite large and somewhat rounded with a pointed tip. The underside is quite downy. A yellow-green dye can be extracted from them. The leaves were also considered an excellent remedy for coughs, colds, asthma, and bronchitis. Try boiling leaves in water, and sweeten with honey. This earned it the name of coughwort! Sometimes, leaves were dried and smoked in pipes to relieve asthma. Perhaps the most well loved remedy for coughs was coltsfoot lozenges.

Now a very tiny plant, easily overlooked, is growing at the foot of Gladstone Road School walling in Scarborough. Slightly toothed narrow leaves from a rosette at the base, and its minute white flowers have petals twice the length of its green sepals. Happy hunting!