coltsfoot defined in 1912 yearcoltsfoot - Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara);
coltsfoot - The volume of the Coltsfoot's life is divided into two chapters and, like a novel that begins instead of ends with the wedding, the chapter we should expect first is put last.
For long before the leaves are thought of the flowers are there. In the drear days at the end of February a hard, thick stem with drooping head pushes up through the earth. Triangular bracts, arranged in a spiral, sheathe it at intervals; here and there they are tinged with purple, down by the base the purple is ruby, while the whole stalk carries a coating of cottony hairs. This colouring is of definite value, for it changes the energy of light into heat, and thus the plant utilises the scanty March sunshine to best advantage, and is able to blossom earlier than almost any other insect-fertilised plant.
Then the bud opens; at a little distance one might take it for a small dandelion, but closer view shows it more like a daisy which is entirely yellow, for in a dandelion the whole flower-head is built up of strap-shaped rays of varying length, but in the Coltsfoot, though there are several rings of fine strap-shaped, almost thread-like rays, the centre of the flower, like the centre of a daisy, is a mass of tiny tube-shaped florets. The whole bloom is walled around by a ring of narrow green leaves, outside which the sheathing bracts of the stem push up closely. Individually, the Coltsfoot cannot make much claim to beauty, but in the mass, say, on railway embankments, perhaps its best loved home, where it rises in its hundreds of thousands, it is a glory of gold. "You would think that some old miser had stumbled while carrying away a sackful of hoarded sovereigns, and had sprawled the sack's contents to run like spilt and spinning coins from the sack's mouth and down the bank, so thickly that you can scarcely see the underlying grass or gravel for the gold."
To discover the more intimate matters in the bloom one needs a lens, and then one can read in it all manner of things. In the first place, one finds that each of the narrow strap-like rays is, half-way down, rolled round to form a tiny tube, which ends in a seed-case containing one seed. Round the top of the seed-case, outside the tube, rises a ring of long white hairs, soft enough to the touch, but really roughened on the surface and armed at intervals with microscopic spines. This is the form the sepals take here. Up through the centre of the tube there runs from the seed-box a fine yellow column with darker tip, and it stands up boldly, just where the tube ends and the ray stretches outwards. If you look at a flower-head you can see a perfect forest of these columns standing in a ring round the central disc. This is then the whole structure of the ray florets that collectively form the yellow fringe, and each is obviously female only. There are no stamens; nothing but the ovary with its column.
But when we isolate a central floret we find a wholly different state of things. Take one that shows an open mouth, and look carefully. It has the appearance of an urn of classic shape standing on a slender pedestal. At the base of the pedestal the sepals are again in the form of silver hairs. The mouth of the urn is a five-pointed star out of the centre of which the stamen heads rise like a single thick club. Really, their five heads are united side to side to form a tube though their five filaments are all separate below. There is often an apparent ovary and column in these flowers, but they are valueless and never form fruit. Only the fringe of yellow rays can do that, but on the other hand, only the central urn-shaped ones are able to produce the necessary fertilising pollen.
Now the way in which the Coltsfoot manages its fertilisation process is very interesting, and has been carefully studied. At first it is simple enough, for its yellow fringe flowers are ready for fertilisation two days before the urn-shaped florets open, so any pollen deposited on them must perforce be brought from other flower-heads by insects. When the central florets open, however, a mass of pollen is pushed out of each of their stamen tubes and lies on the top. Then night conies and the Coltsfoot closes up, with the result that the fringe tips are bound to touch these loose clumps of pollen and some of the pollen clumps adhere to them. With the morning light the ray flowers fall slowly back into their old position, and the pollen mass slides down each and is caught by the expectant tip of the ovary column. Thus skilfully is the transference effected, and if the ovary has not already been fertilised it is now.
By the way, it must be noticed that the Coltsfoot takes particular care of its pollen, for not only at night does it close, but should rain come on - and the weather is often bad enough in February - it droops the whole head, and the brunt of the storm is borne by the sheathing bracts, while the face of the bloom is kept perfectly dry. This sensitiveness to weather ranks it among the "weather-cock plants."
When all the central florets have had their day the head closes up and hangs somewhat; the calyx hairs lengthen, the ovary becomes brown and harder, the rest of the parts wither, and ultimately and very quickly the stalk straightens again and holds up proudly a feathery brush, not beautiful like the dandelion clock, nor of such silvery whiteness, but serviceable enough, for it is built up of scores and scores of feathery flying seeds, and when it breaks down each individual flies away to settle where it can. The finches specially appreciate these feathery parachutes and eagerly seize upon them as material well fitted to line their nests. The Coltsfoot is happy in one respect - it seems to like heavy clayey soil which other plants ban, and it is often the first plant to take possession of newly-cut embankments. Once established, it is almost ineradicable, for it has a tough rootstock which burrows in every direction, and which seems possessed of the elixir of life for, maltreat it as one may, cut it where one will, it crops up again like a Jack-in-the-Box, to produce its naked flower stalk in the wintry days. It is, in the farmer's eyes, a most tiresome weed; the only thing that can be said in its favour is that it brings a gaiety when the country is at almost its barest. "Often," says Mr. Coulson Kernahan, "I think of those spare, straight flowers standing so swiftly at 'attention' upon their leafless stalks as soldiers who have donned their burnished helmets while on duty as a guard of honour to welcome the advent of the Queen of the Spring and her consort the Sun. The soldiers of the flower world indeed they are, the 'markers' or 'single spies' sent on in advance to denote the spot on which the battalions and companies of the on-coming army of Spring and Summer shall form."
The second chapter of the Coltsfoot's life begins as the seeds are wafted away, for down by the root soft downy, white objects appear. Later they will develop into great broad leaves, coarsely heart-shaped, but in the earliest days they are neatly folded back on either side of themselves, so that they look like spear heads pushing upwards. Even after they unfold they are covered with the thickest of white down, but, as they mature, the down rubs off their upper surfaces leaving them green and comparatively smooth, but it still remains on the under side. And the reason for this difference is that on the clay in which the Coltsfoot commonly grows heavy moisture collects, and, since the leaves lie on the ground, it would clog the evaporation pores on their under side were it not covered with a felting which water cannot penetrate. So little connection do the leaves appear to have with the flowers that it used to be generally believed that the Coltsfoot bore no flowers at all, for the people who only knew it for its clump of leaves of course never saw a flower emerge from among them. Hence the common names of the plant - "Coltsfoot," "Ass's-foot," "Bull's-foot," "Foal's-foot," and "Horse-hoof" - all refer to the leaves, and are derived from their supposed resemblance in outline to the objects designated.
Its botanical name Tussilago Farfara (tussis - Lat: a cough) reminds us that once these leaves were considered a specific against coughs, colds and pulmonary troubles generally, remedies from them being prepared in various ways. Sometimes they were burnt upon coals and their fumes inhaled; more often decoctions or distillations were prepared from them and, either alone or with elder flowers and nightshade, proved a "singular good remedy" against all hot agues, wheezings and shortness of breath. Coltsfoot lozenges for coughs were a well-loved remedy in our grandmother's days, and Gerard nearly three hundred years ago wrote of the plant as "Coughwort."
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