Friday, April 15, 2011

Coltsfoot in Bloom Now.

Coltsfoot is one of those quirky creations of nature which involves putting the cart before the horse. Or, in this instance, "the son before the father" as its old Latin name of Filius ante patrem implies. Very early in the spring, coltsfoot develops flat orange flower heads, but only after they eventually wither do the broad, hoof-shaped, sea-green leaves develop. Coltsfoot is fairly common and isn't picky about the soil it grows in.

Coltsfoot, the dried leaves and/or flower heads of Tussilago farfara L., is one of those plants whose botanical name reflects its medicinal application. Tussilago derives from the Latin tussis, meaning cough, and coltsfoot has long been used to treat that affliction. This member of the family Asteraceae is a low, perennial, woolly herb that early in the spring produces a flowering stem with a single terminal yellow flower head. After the flower stem dies down, the hoof-shaped leaves appear. Coltsfoot is native to Europe but grows widely in moist, sandy places in the northeastern and north central United States and southern Canada. Since the flowers and leaves appear at different times, they are collected and marketed separately.

Over the years, coltsfoot has been a very popular folk remedy for coughs and bronchial congestion. The leaves, the blossoms, and even the roots are ingredients in a large number of proprietary tea mixtures that are marketed in Europe for treating these conditions. Since the principal active ingredient in the plant is a throat-soothing mucilage, smoking coltsfoot is certainly not rational therapy. The mucilage would be destroyed by burning, and the effect of smoke on already irritated mucous membranes would be increased irritation. Inhaling the vapors from coltsfoot leaves placed in a pan of simmering water is again without value. The useful mucilage is not volatile and would not reach the affected tissues.

A scientific study carried out in Japan revealed some rather disturbing information about coltsfoot. The investigators analyzed dried young flowers because they are the parts widely used as an herbal remedy in Japan. They found the hepatotoxic (poisonous to the liver) pyrrolizidine alkaloid senkirkine to be present in relatively small amounts (0.015 percent). When rats were fed diets containing various amounts of coltsfoot, those which received high concentrations (greater than 4 percent) developed cancerous tumors of the liver. The scientists concluded that "it is evident that the young, pre-blooming flowers of coltsfoot are carcinogenic, showing a high incidence of hemangioendothelial sarcoma of the liver (8/12, 66.6 percent).

These data highlight the toxicity of pyrrolizidine alkaloids with an unsaturated pyrrolizidine nucleus, even at extremely low levels. Two such alkaloids in the leaves and flowers, senkirkine and senecionine, are easily extracted in hot water. Continued or prolonged exposure to these pyrrolizidine alkaloids may have a cumulative effect.

For some time it was hoped that the rest of the plant might be devoid of pyrrolizidine alkaloids. However, a subsequent investigation of coltsfoot leaves showed senkirkine to be present in them as well.

People suffering from throat irritations can no longer consider coltsfoot preparations appropriate therapy. Neither the flowers, the leaves, nor the roots can safely be used for medicinal purposes. If readers want an herbal demulcent (soothing agent), they should consider a medication such as slippery elm bark or marshmallow root, both of which have long held official status in The United States Pharmacopeia (USP) and The National Formulary (NF).

Leaves, flowers.

An effective demulcent and expectorant herb, coltsfoot is one of the most popular European remedies for treating chest problems. In Europe, the leaves are preferred to the flowers (which contain higher amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids), but in China the flowers are preferred. Both parts are taken as a decoction for chest conditions. When used as a syrup or a medicinal cigarette, coltsfoot also relieves asthma. Coltsfoot is used as a specific treatment for spasmodic coughs. It combines well with licorice, thyme, and black cherry. In China, coltsfoot is classified as a "warming" herb that helps relieve coughing and wheezing.

Indigenous to Europe and northern Asia, and naturalized in North America, coltsfoot is a common plant often found along roadsides and in open areas. The flowers are gathered in late winter, the leaves in summer.

Extracts of the whole plant have been shown to increase immune resistance. In a Chinese trial involving 36 patients suffering from bronchial asthma, 75% showed some improvement after treatment, but the antiasthmatic effect was short-lived.

Coltsfoot contains flavonoids, about 8% mucilage (consisting of polysaccharides), 10% tannins, pyrrolizidine alkaloids, vitamin C, and zinc. The pyrrolizidine alkaloids may have a toxic effect on the liver, but are largely destroyed when the parts are boiled to make a decoction. The polysaccharides are anti-inflammatory and immunostimulant. The flavonoids are anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic.

Coltsfoot is prepared as a decoction for the treatment of coughs and other chest complaints. Coltsfoot is combined with other herbs as a tobacco in herbal cigarettes to relieve the spasm in asthma and bronchitis. As a tincture take 1 ml (20 drops) twice daily to improve the lungs. It is particularly good for coughs when used as a syrup. The Chinese dosage is 1.5 - 9 g (1/16 - 1/2 oz).

The flavonoids have an antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory effect which eases spasm in the lungs during asthma and bronchitis attacks, allowing easier breathing. The polysaccharides are anti-inflammatory, which helps to calm irritated lung tissue. They also act as an expectorant for excess phlegm and mucous. Together these constituents work to improve the immune system and promote a healthy respiratory system. The pyrrolizidine alkaloids are thought to be harmful to the liver, but to a large extent are destroyed when prepared as a decoction.
DECOCTION - Prescribed for irritable coughs and phlegm; also for coughs associated with colds or influenza.
TINCTURE - Prescribed for chronic or persistent coughs; combines well with thyme and elecampane.
SYRUP - Prescribed for coughs; a syrup made from the decoction is more moistening for dry, stubborn coughs than the infusion.
DECOCTION - Prescribed for coughs and phlegm.
TINCTURE - Prescribed for chronic or persistent coughs.
POULTICE - Apply the fresh leaf externally to ulcers, sores, and other slow-to-heal wounds.

1 oz (30 g) coltsfoot leaves
1/3 oz (10 g) marshmallow root
3/4 oz (25 g) balsam shoots
3/4 oz (25 g) ground ivy
1/3 oz (10 g) licorice
4 cups (1 liter) water
2 Ib (1 kg) natural honey

Boil this mixture in 4 cups (1 Iiter) water for 15 minutes. Strain and add 2 lb (1 kg) natural honey. Gently melt, simmering at low heat for 20 minutes. Cool before bottling. Store in refrigerator. Consume within 3 months.
Treatment: 1 T (15ml), 2 to 3 times a day. Even children will enjoy it!
This syrup is most effective when the 3 native plants have been freshly picked, and the cultured plants (marshmallow and licorice) have been dried.

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