Coltsfoot: It’s Not A Dandelion–Wildflower Wednesday March 2012

– Posted in: Mud Season, Native/Invasive, What's up/blooming

You could be forgiven for mistaking coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) for a dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) from a distance,

Coltsfoot growing in gravel path

Coltsfoot growing in a gravel path. It also thrives in roadside ditches.

especially if you didn’t know that coltsfoot is the earliest blooming wildflower in northeastern North America. Can you tell them apart when I put them next to each other?


Coltsfoot flowers are above; a single dandelion flower is below.

Furthermore, coltsfoot flowers bloom without any foliage at all. Dandelions send up leaves first, and then the flowers bloom later.

Coltsfoot flowers bloom next to dandelion leaves

Coltsfoot flowers (on the left) bloom next to a dandelion seedling.

And if you think back to your dandelion-picking days, you’ll remember that dandelions have a smooth, tubular stem that oozed a white, sticky sap when you picked the flower. Coltsfoot has a scaly stem.

Coltsfoot stem and bud detail

Coltsfoot stems are scaly. My finger points to an emerging flower stalk.

Coltsfoot is a mud season flower, blooming before you can count on nice weather, usually in April around here, but this year–well, everything is early, and we scarcely had mud season. It blooms before bloodroot and liverwort, the two earliest native wildflowers that I know of. And according to my earlier post, it blooms about a week after the peepers are heard. In a more typical year, I think the coltsfoot bloom would overlap with the last of the crocuses and the first daffodils.

Invasive In Some Areas

I knew coltsfoot wasn’t a native plant, but I always thought of it as rather innocuous, always there but never taking over. In my research for this post today, I discovered that many states have branded it as an invasive plant. The Invasive Plant Atlas of New England says coltsfoot can crowd out native species. I wonder what species, in particular? The roots can go down 3m–almost 10 feet–so it would certainly be difficult to dig out. It is not listed as an invasive species in NY, but I couldn’t find an official invasive species list for NY state; if you know of one, please let me know.

Possible Liver Problems When Ingested

You may have heard of coltsfoot being used as a cough remedy. Before you do so yourself, please read the Coltsfoot Wikipedia article. Coltsfoot has been associated with liver problems and was banned in Germany until a special form of coltsfoot was bred for medicinal purposes.
I’m sorry to learn that coltsfoot misbehaves in some locales, as it is a sign to me that winter is truly over, and therefore a symbol of hope. Are you familiar with it where you are?

Posted for Wildflower Wednesday, created by Gail of Clay and Limestone, to share wildflowers/native plants no matter where you garden in the blogasphere. “It doesn’t matter if we sometimes show the same plants. How they grow and thrive in your garden is what matters most. It’s always the fourth Wednesday of the month!”

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In the end, this may be the most important thing about frost: Frost slows us down. In spring, it tempers our eagerness. In fall, it brings closure and rest. In our gotta-go world–where every nanosecond seems to count–slowness can be a great gift. So rather than see Jack Frost as an adversary, you could choose to greet him as a friend.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Heidi K. April 18, 2013, 2:14 pm

Thank you for identifying the coltsfoot for me. I have seen it growing in the culvert every spring in my neighborhood. As you said, it comes up right around the same time that the spring peepers start singing.

Vin May 2, 2012, 11:19 am

While they may be mistaken by only looking at their flowers, their leaves are more easily to distinguish.

alanc230 April 30, 2012, 3:03 pm

Thanks, I learned something from you today. I have seen coltsfoot before, but I always thought it was a variant kind of dandelion. Now I know differently. A little new knowledge is never a bad thing.

Dave April 7, 2012, 2:07 pm

We often use widflower meadow mixes in large gardens mixed with trees to lower the maintenance of the householder. They look great for a long time and only have to be cut once maybe twice a year which saves alot of hardship on maintenace, what are generally considered weeds (dandelions) are now flowers, interesting how perceptions can change, theres a few photos of wid flower gardens on our website if you care to take a look

Chris April 4, 2012, 11:15 pm

GREAT photos of the coltsfoot! I’ve been to numerous sites but they’ve all given only a written description. Your pictures will make it much easier for me to look around the fields and woods for it. I’ve used it (purchased dried) for decades for bronchitis, laryngitis, and upper respiratory illnesses. It’s amazingly effective. Thanks for the info!

door251 April 4, 2012, 2:09 pm


Love the blog, you def have a new follower.

I was wondering if you knew what kind of plants are good for heavily shaded gardens? we have a tiny tiny city garden, but it is surrounded by big oak trees which i suspect are sucking the life out of everything, couple that with it not getting an ounce of sun and me being a complete novice, i’ve no idea what to plant in there, everything from last year died.

thanks for your help!!

Alistair April 1, 2012, 11:42 am

coltsfoot, yes I like it, the dandelion, well, your picture of it looks fine.

Kay G. March 30, 2012, 5:49 pm

Oh yes, I most certainly know a dandelion flower. We are on intimate terms. I don’t think we have that other one, we must be too far south.
I also was a pen-pal for many years but I married mine!
My husband is the gardener at my house but he does let me water the plants sometimes!

AR Wadoo March 29, 2012, 1:16 pm

Dandelion is the first wild vege i like to enjoy. In my apple orchard dandelion grows in abundance in early spring.It is free of any bitter taste. I collect a lot of it. We clean it and allow it to dry in the shade.Dried dandelion is delecious.

Deborah Banks March 28, 2012, 8:05 pm

I have never mistaken this for dandelions, but I always thought this was what some refer to as marsh marigolds.

Kathy Purdy March 28, 2012, 8:36 pm

No, marsh marigold is something different. I grew it at my former garden and hope to move it here. Maybe I will get to show it to you sometime.

commonweeder March 28, 2012, 1:55 pm

I’ve got coltsfoot – and a friend who is trying out a decoction of buds and stems to ameliorate her cough. Another name for coltsfoot is coughwort.

Flâneur Gardener March 28, 2012, 1:40 pm

It grows wild in Denmark, and even as a child I knew the difference between coltsfoot and dandelions; one can be eaten, the other can’t! (My mother always made a point of explaining which plants we were allowed to taste and which we weren’t. Mainly when it came to the berries and legumes – peas are all right, sweet peas aren’t! – but also for stuff like dandelions and ground elder – okay to eat – and arums and coltsfoot – NOT okay to eat!)

Kathy Purdy March 28, 2012, 1:58 pm

What is the botanical name for ground elder? I wasn’t aware that ground elder was edible, but perhaps we are calling two different plants by the same name.

Gail March 28, 2012, 1:27 pm

It’s been in the Americas since the first colonist so it’s had time to dig itself in~I love the flower, but, will pass on adding another colonizing taprooted pretty to the garden. I found a list of wildflowers that grow in waste areas that it might crowd out~hawkweed, asclepias, Blue eyed grass, wild geranium, and even wild rose. xogail

Frances March 28, 2012, 1:07 pm

It’s so cute, Kathy! I don’t recall seeing it, not in my garden anyway, but it could be growing in the wild around here and be mistaken from afar for dandelion. Those we have plenty of.