Confusing spring lookalikes: Coltsfoot vs dandelion

dandelion and coltsfoot
Although they are often confused for one another, coltsfoot and dandelion plants have noticeable differences. Dandelion leaves are toothed and apparent when the plant is in bloom. Coltsfoot leaves appear after the plant has gone to seed, looking loosely like a colt's foot. (Tami Gingrich photos, Linda Gilbert photo of coltsfoot leaf)

One of the very first flowers to add color to the dull landscape at the onset of spring is coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara). With its vivid yellow blossoms, it bears a strong resemblance to the dandelion at first glance. A member of the aster family, its name is derived from the shape of its leaf, which (if you have an imagination) resembles that of a colt’s foot. A few other names for this plant include foalfoot, foalswort, horsehoof, colt-herb and coughwort.

Commonly found widespread throughout the eastern half of Canada and the United States, coltsfoot is a non-native plant that was most likely introduced by early settlers from Eurasia who brought it along for its medicinal values. Used for hundreds of years as a treatment for colds, coughs and sore throats (thus the name coughwort), it is often served in the form of a tea. Yet scientists have discovered that the plant contains toxic chemicals capable of causing damage to the liver, so care must be taken if ingesting it.

Coltsfoot is often found in colonies and are commonly spread by rhizomes. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Coltsfoot is extremely adaptable and can grow in a variety of soils and habitats. Yet it seems to thrive in locations with much disturbance such as gravely roadsides and areas with poor soils. The plants, often found in colonies, are commonly spread by rhizomes. Supported atop long, scaly stems, the flowers open by day and close in the evening. It isn’t until they set their seed, appearing as white, puffballs containing hundreds of tiny parachutes each with a seed attached, that the plant’s leaves begin pushing up through the soil. Becoming quite large with maturity, the toothed leaves appear rubbery on top and fuzzy beneath. As summer accelerates, the leaves of the coltsfoot fade and wither, leaving no trace that the plant was even there.


Dandelions are actually a collection of many smaller flowers, each producing a seed attached to a flossy parachute. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Following closely in the wake of coltsfoot is the dandelion. This ubiquitous plant, also not native to this country, is one which nearly everyone recognizes. The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) like coltsfoot is also in the aster family. The large yellow flower head, borne on a smooth, hollow stem, is actually a collection of many smaller flowers, each producing a seed attached to a flossy parachute. When the perfectly round ball of seeds is exposed to the wind, these seeded parachutes sail off to be carried great distances. Since dandelions can thrive in almost any habitat, the seeds often have no problem germinating where they land. This efficient form of dispersal allows the plant to thrive. I remember, as a child, grabbing up dandelion seed heads and making a wish. Supposedly, it would only come true if every seed was lofted into the air with a single blow.

Unlike coltsfoot, dandelion leaves appear before the blossoms. They are long, narrow and deeply lobed, appearing as a rosette which can support many flowering stems at once. Beneath the ground lies and impressive tap root, its depth often greater than the amount of plant growing above the surface. If you are a gardener, you know all too well the strength and skill required to extract this long root from the soil in one piece. If the plant grows back, you know you have left some of the root in the ground.

Throughout recorded history, dandelions have been used by humans for food and medicinal needs. The entire plant is edible and nutritious, containing high amounts of vitamins A, K and C and moderate sources of iron and calcium. Leaves contain an antioxidant called lutein and the roots are rich in prebiotic fiber. Dandelions contain a milky sap which produces a bitter flavor. This is the plant’s way of protecting itself from being eaten by predators.

The dandelion is considered a weed by most. A weed is simply any unloved plant. For me, the dandelion is as far from being a weed as it could possibly be. The sight of my pasture dotted in bright yellow flowers is sight for sore eyes. One need only to walk among the blossoms to find them buzzing with pollinators. Dandelions are such an important early source of pollen for honey bees. They are also utilized by many other species of bees and insects such as beetles and butterflies which happily flit from one blossom to the next extracting the life-giving nectar.

Culinary uses

Tami Gingrich loves to give dandelion jelly as gifts and watch the amazement on people’s faces as they taste the delectable treat. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Over the years I have learned to appreciate dandelions for their culinary uses. I enjoy harvesting the new leaves, before they become bitter and need to be blanched, and adding them to salads. And there is much that can be done with the blossoms themselves. It doesn’t take long to gather enough flowers required for a recipe of dandelion jelly. I love to give my jelly as gifts, watching the amazement on people’s faces as they taste the delectable treat. Dandelion shortbread cookies have become a favorite in my household. And there is no wine more unique than that of dandelion.

I’m not saying that I have never cursed a dandelion plant for growing in the wrong place or persisting when I thought I had successfully dug it up — I NEVER use chemicals. But the benefits of this spring wildflower are unmatched, and whether we like it or not, it is here to stay.

Tami Gingrich’s dandelion shortbread cookies (Tami Gingrich photo)

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  1. Wonderfully how humanity is reconnecting to nature as technology tries to replace it and absorb us into it, remember to pick your flowers in your bare feet so you can feel their natural energy.


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