Do You Dare Use Herbs?

Coltsfoot Leaf by Jennifer SchlickEvery spring I decide that I’m going to try some of the wild edibles or wild medicinals that I read about…  I rarely follow through.  After a cough that lingered for three weeks, though, I’m seriously considering trying to make up some Coltsfoot cough syrup and drops for next winter!  The instructions are simple and straightforward and the information from all sources seems consistent…  Not so for all herbs!

Google “Spring Beauty” and the top ten sites are botanical in nature.  Google “Blue Cohosh” and you’ll have to look carefully to find a botanical site.  Most listings are about the use of this plant for medicinal purposes…  And let me tell you:  I wouldn’t dare use it, based on what I read.  The Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs uses an exclamation point inside a triangle as a symbol that means Caution.  The symbol appears with the listing for Blue Cohosh.

Blue Cohosh has been used for a variety of female conditions, which is undoubtedly why it is also sometimes known as Squawroot or Papoose Root.  Advice on the Internet is contradictory.  Here’s a site that says you can use it during pregnancy:

It may be used at any time during pregnancy if there is a threat of miscarriage.  Similarly, because of its anti-spasmodic action, it will ease false labour pains and dysmenorrhoea. However, when labor does ensue, the use of Blue Cohosh just before birth will help ensure an easy delivery.  In all these cases it is a safe herb to use.  (source)

And here’s one that says you should not use it during pregnancy:

Native Americans used Blue Cohosh to induce labor. It should not be used in pregnancy prior to the ninth month.  (source)

Blue Cohosh by Jennifer SchlickMedicinal uses aside, Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) is a very interesting plant to watch at this time of year.  When it first pushes through the leaf litter, it is so dark purple it blends in with the shadows; you might walk right past it and not even notice.  For example, I was so delighted to find this little plant on my walk today, thinking it was sort of a loner on the side of the trail.  When I finished snapping a few shots, I discovered a huge patch of them on the other side of the trail.  They’re easy to miss!

As the leaves unfurl the dark purple gives way to a lovely bluish-green as shown below in a photo by Jeremy Martin:

Blue Cohosh by Jeremy Martin

In a month, they’ll look like this:

Blue Cohosh by Jennifer Schlick

By July the berries will have set, and by autumn they will turn blue:

Blue Cohosh Berries by Jennifer Schlick  Blue Cohosh Berries by Jeff Tome
(Photo on right by Jeff Tome.)

Blue Cohosh Range Map from USDA


To photograph this flower now, you will need to get down on your knees.  By the end of its season, it could be one to three feet tall.  It likes “rich” woods in the eastern and central parts of North America.

Do you use wild herbs?  Tell us about it!



One of the earliest colorful spring flowers in our area is often mistaken for Dandelion.  Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is an alien wildflower that sends up blossoms long before it sends up leaves.  Because they are in the same family – composites – and because they are yellow, folks often point and say, “Dandelion.”


ColtsfootDon’t let it fool you.  Dandelions bloom from the center of a bunch of leaves.  Also, check the stems… Dandelion has a hollow smooth (or sometimes slightly fuzzy) stem.  Coltsfoot has an interesting scaly stem.

Both Dandelions and Coltsfoot make good Wishing Flowers when they go to seed.  Just pick one, close your eyes and make a wish, then blow the seeds.  Your wish will be carried by the wind into the universe and surely it will come true.

Circle in a Square Coltsfoot Leaf


The latin name Tussilago means cough dispeller and this plant is often used to create cough syrup and cough drops.  The fresh leaves collected in May or June coltsfoot range mapare boiled in water, then strained.  The liquid is sweetened with sugar and cooked until the right consistency.  Dried leaves can be made into tea.  They can also be smoked to alleviate a dry cough and open the lungs…  Hmm…  So “they” say.  Has anyone tried it?

If you’re thinking of trying it, be aware that I found one warning against mistaking Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) leaves for Coltsfoot.  The source didn’t say why…  In fact, another source claims that Butterbur may help prevent migraines, but that’s a story for another day.   Butterbur leaves are similar to Coltsfoot, but the flowers have no rays, come in clusters and may be any color from cream to pink with white anthers.

And one more use for Coltfoot… if the leaves are burned to a black ash and sprinkled on food, they can fool your tongue into thinking you’ve sprinkled salt.


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