oltsfoot, or tussilago farfara, is opening now. This is a curious-looking plant — though you may have mistakenly dismissed it as a dandelion. From a distance, it does have the same bright yellow blooms as its well-known relative, but coltsfoot flower heads appear earlier and have two distinct types of floret on them: long, strand-like ray florets, which are bright yellow; and small tubular disc florets in the centre which are a deeper orange. Leafless this time of the year, the hoof-shaped foliage appears later. This order of flower-before-leaf also led to another common name, son-before-father.
For now, the plant appears to pop magically from nowhere on scaly, purple-red stems. It doesn’t ask for much in the way of soil: you can often find it sprouting through tarmac and kerbs, as well as rough grassland, field margins and other bare places.
This is the first in a procession of yellow-flowered members of the daisy family. Dandelions, or taraxacum spp., are much maligned as weeds, which makes no sense. We spend hours planting daffodils of the same colour which we then mow as soon as the dandelion shows its cheery face. Perhaps the way the dandelion gardens itself offends our obsession with controlling nature. It’s an attitude we should rethink, given the number of insects and birds that rely on dandelions. Plants aren’t just for our own entertainment and they aren’t only beautiful or acceptable when we have control of them.
There are hundreds of microspecies of dandelion, including ones with freckled leaves, red leaves, and even reddish outer florets. They also have many doppelgängers later in the season, including the star-like goats-beard, tragopogon pratensis, and perennial sow-thistle, sonchus arvensis, which stands several feet tall. They all have distinctive characteristics, but one thing that unites these flowers is that seeing them should make you grin. Coltsfoot marks the start of months of smiling.
Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator and author of The Natural Health Service