Every spring, Mother Earth hosts a race alongside melting rivers and streams.
Depending on one’s powers of observation, it’s the deftly-hidden sprint to become Campbell River’s first blooming wildflower.
Most folks who guess “Skunk Cabbage” will correctly identify one of the race’s front runners. Big and brash in golden hues, the strong-smelling plant (more appealingly called “Swamp Lantern”) is undeniably the largest and often the season’s first-noticed wildflower.
But look a bit closer, lower to the ground, in bogs, meadows, damp seepage areas and rich riparian soil, to find another contender. Posing pretty in Easter shades of ivory and mauve, coltsfoot (colt’s foot) is the more delicate of spring’s two front-runners, and one with a captivating genealogy.
The ample blooms provide some of the first springtime nectar for bees. The blossom resembles a heavy clustered flower-head, replaced in autumn by a flattened ‘dandelion’ puff. This native perennial is unique in that the flowers usually appear – and wither away – even before the leaves unfurl.
Long ago, First Nations people gathered fresh coltsfoot stalks as a spring vegetable. Steamed, with a pat of butter, salt and pepper, its smell and taste resemble celery or asparagus.
Various species of this circumboreal plant existed in ancient Europe, where it was called coughwort or butterbur. Imaginative early botanists thought coltsfoot leaves resembled horseshoes … thus the common name. So useful were the leaves, flowers and roots that French pharmacists painted ‘Pas d’âne’ blossoms on their signposts.
Scientific analysis confirms zinc, calcium, potassium, vitamin C, and tannin (an antiseptic) in coltsfoot, and it’s a potent ingredient of some cough syrups and herbal teas.
Bees love it, butter improves it, our ancestors smoked it, and coughs may be cured with it, making coltsfoot an all-in-one wildflower, vegetable, medicine and tobacco!
Springtime fantasies of little colts prancing along a riverbank should be enough to coax anyone outside to look for these wildflower front-runners, but don’t delay, as they’ll soon disappear beneath their own canopy of dinner plate-size leaves.
Vancouver Island Backyard Bird poster now at Campbell River Museum and Coho Books. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org