Coltsfoot grows wild over much of Europe, and has been used traditionally to treat chest ailments for hundreds of years. The name is derived from the horseshoe shaped leaves. It was so popular in Europe at one time that French pharmacists painted its flowers on their doorposts. It was brought to the American colonies from Europe. American colonists were known to wrap persons afflicted with whooping cough in blankets that had been soaked with a coltsfoot infusion. Before the plant flowers, it resembles butterbur enough that old herbals caution against confusing the two.
In Victorian England, the spores were sometimes used in the theater to create flash fires, since the high aluminum content of the plant will cause a bright, fast-burning fire when ignited. Its most common modern pharmaceutical use is as a dusting powder to prevent pills from sticking together. This is due to the powder’s ability to absorb moisture.
The USDA classifies coltsfoot as an herb of “unknown safety”, and the presence of minute amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which have been found to cause liver toxicity and cancer, has led to its banning in West Germany. The amount of these alkaloids is extremely small, though, and the beneficial effects are generally believed to outweigh the miniscule risk.
NOTE: Coltsfoot should not be used by pregnant women, as it may be an abortifacient, and the alkaloids seem to have a particularly harmful effect on the liver of the developing infant. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids present in the plant are potentially toxic in large doses, but have not proven toxic in the doses usually used to treat coughs. Still, it is recommended that coltsfoot tea or syrup not be used for more than 4-6 weeks at a time.
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