Thursday, April 23, 2015

Colt's Foot - Tussilago farfara - Tussilage

On our walk on Sunday, E and I encountered Tussilago farfara (colt's foot, fr: tussilage) already in bloom, even though there was still snow on the ground in some places.

Tussilago farfara
T. farfara is a spring ephemeral, a plant which blooms in the brief period between snow melt and the closure of the forest canopy (the emergence of leaves on the trees), when there is light in the forest understory.

This plant is among the first bloomers this year. It often is, as it actually sets its flower buds in the fall prior to the season, a strategy which allows for the earliest possible emergence of flowers. Indeed, at this stage T. farfara does not have any leaves out. They will emerge only later, once the flowers have matured (and once the plant has been exposed to enough sunlight to produce new leaves). T. farfara is a rather unassuming plant later in the season, producing short, heart-shaped leaves in clusters.

Tussilago farfara inflorescence. Note the absence of leaves at this stage of the season.
The flowers are actually a cluster of florets, of which the long ones are fertile, and the ones in the inner disc are infertile. After pollination, they produce seeds which superficially resemble those of dandelions. They have a tuft of light material attached which assists in wind dispersal.

T. farfara is an introduced species in North America, being originally native to Europe. It was brought over as a medicinal plant, but note that we have since determined that it is a toxic plant which can cause serious liver damage. Some varieties without the toxic chemicals have been cultivated in Europe, but these are only in commercial settings; the wild plants are toxic.

This plant is also listed in the Ontario weed registry. It occurs primarily in disturbed areas, particularly along roads.

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