Sweet Coltsfoot; A plant of many names…

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It’s important to do your homework before you begin your foraging journey.

Although we often rely on common names for plants when we discuss them, sometimes that doesn’t always work. Plants can have remarkably similar or nearly identical common names and be from completely different species!

Coltsfoot is a common name given to a variety of plant species! In the United States there are five generally accepted varieties to Petasites frigidus. Common names for these varieties are Arrow-leaved Coltsfoot, Palmate Coltsfoot, Arctic Coltsfoot, Sweet Coltsfoot, etcetera. Here, we’ll be talking about Petasites frigidus var. frigidus, also known as (Arctic) Sweet Coltsfoot, or Arctic Butterbur.

Walter Siegmund, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Identifying Sweet Coltsfoot

Sweet Coltsfoot is an herbaceous perennial native to the Pacific Northwest and Canada. The plant produces tall flowering stems in the early spring, and broad loved leaves in the summer. Sweet Coltsfoot is dioecious, meaning that each plant produces either male or female flowers.

Male Coltsfoot flowers have thread-like petals mixed with stamens and are about ½ to ¾ of an inch across. Female Coltsfoot flowers have short, rounded petals. The flower clusters at the top of the stalk are between 3-4 inches across.

Walter Siegmund, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The leaves of Sweet Coltsfoot are rounded, 15-20 cm across, and rise directly from the underground rootstock. They have a deeply cleft base and shallow lobes on the margin. The underside of the leaves is covered with matted, wooly fuzz.


Where to find Sweet Coltsfoot

Sweet Coltsfoot grows in Oregon, Washington, and California along the Pacific Northwest, up into Canada, and then down again into the New England area. It can be found in wetlands and anywhere the soil stays moist and wet. Swampy areas, meadows, woods, and especially riverbanks. It can grow in all light conditions between full-shade and no-shade.  

Jerzy Strzelecki, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The blooming season is between May and June, the best time to identify Coltsfoot by it’s flowers. You can find them growing up out of stream banks and seeping grounds of cut banks.

Culinary Uses

The roots, leaf stalks, flowers, and flower stems of Sweet Coltsfoot are all edible. Young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, mixed with other greens. The leaves can also be made into sauerkraut and used in the same way any other potherb is used.

Roots, flower stalks, and flower heads should be cooked before eating. They can be roasted, boiled, or stir fried.

Walter Siegmund, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The foliage of Sweet Coltsfoot can also be bundled into a tight ball and burned. The ashes then can be used as a salt substitute.


Although Coltsfoot is a versatile edible wild, it has high levels of alkaloids in all parts of the plant. Therefore, it should not be eaten in large quantities, as this may lead to cumulative liver damage.

Other Uses

Native Americans of Alaska and Northern Canada have historically made extensive use of Sweet Coltsfoot. An infusion of the dried leaves has been used as a treatment for colds, head and chest congestion.

Walter Siegmund, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

They also used the leaves as temporary containers, and to cover kegs of berries and rhubarb to discourage mold growth during the winter. The cotton-like seedheads, once matured, have been used as mattress stuffing.

For gardeners of the Pacific Northwest, Sweet Coltsfoot makes an excellent ground cover on top of being edible.

Common Lookalikes

In most cases, if you find a lookalike for Sweet Coltsfoot, it is most likely another varietal of Coltsfoot. The Arrow-Leafed Coltsfoot and the Palmate Coltsfoot share the same growing patterns and Habitats. In many species the most notable difference is in the shape of the leaves.  

Walter Siegmund, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Luckily for the forager, these varieties of the species are likewise all edible in the same way and should be given the same precautions as Sweet Coltsfoot.

When researching any variety of Coltsfoot, you may come across a great deal of information about a European variety also referred to as Tussilago farfara. There is an old taxon, Tussilago frigida, which is considered synonymous with Petasites frigidus.

Tussilago farfara and Tussilago frigida are both referred to by the common name of Coltsfoot, but they are distinct species. Closely related, but still distinct from one another. Given the similarities in the scientific names, it is very easy to get the two confused during research. 

For those in the United States, it is Important to always check carefully what variety of a species you’re researching.

Written by Taylor Calderon
Taylor Calderon is a freelance graphic designer and writer from South Texas. They have a passion for art, food, and living self-sufficiently. They enjoy writing on a variety of topics and issues, from sustainable living to botanicals and foraging, to travel and culture. To see more of their work, you can view their portfolio at www.flamingink.art

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