Coltsfoot: Internal Use – Later Ideas

Later authors introduce internal use for cough, some expand application of the bitter principle, and some consider its qualities, while most repeat the Ancients’ recommendations too. Dodoens and Turner simply repeat Dioscorides. Culpeper assigns the herb to Venus. Parkinson, followed by Culpeper, includes the burnt herb use but takes up Galen that fresh coltsfoot is cooling and drying, but when dried and the moisture evaporated it becomes hotter and dry, and hence good against thin rheums that are causing the cough, thickening and drying it; while the fresh leaves or juice, or their syrup, are good for a hot dry cough, wheezings and shortness of breath. He suggests the distilled water alone or in a mixture with elder Sambucus nigra and nightshade Solarium nigrum for hot agues, both drunk, 2 oz at a time, and applied on cloths to the head and stomach. This mix can also be applied to any hot swellings and other inflammations, including St Anthony’s fire (possibly erysipelas or herpes zoster, for which coltsfoot could be effective, or ergotism, for which topical treatment is almost certainly useless), burns, ‘wheales’ and pustules from heat, and burning piles. This mixture possibly originates from Bock – Simonis cites the same recipe from this source. Gerard adds the fresh green leaves, being cold, are good for ulcers in inflammation, otherwise he reads as Galen and Dioscorides, interpreting the breaking of abscesses (impostumes) of the breast/chest as relieved by inhaling the fumes, not as drunk in internal use.

The herb was clearly taken internally in the 18th century. Miller says the leaves and flowers are frequently put into ‘pectoral apozems’; Quincy confirms this, telling us that as an excellent pectoral it enters many shop compositions of that intention as well as appearing frequently in extemporaneous prescriptions. It makes a decoction smooth and healing, he says. Quincy notes that it might be used in stronger form ‘But Dr Fuller, in his Medicina Gymnastica, thinks such preparations of it are not enough charged with the herb; and is for having the decoctions made with it boil’d to the consistence almost of a syrup; which he recommends for a wonderful restorative, in wastings of the lungs and consumptions’. He does not actually specify internal use, but in the absence of other instruction, this mode might be assumed, since too he next writes of its healing qualities smoked a tobacco and how many account it a good cooler and healer outwardly used ‘and Etmuller says he knew a woman who cured ulcers of the breast with it’. Quincy sites this herb in Class 2 of the Balsamics, the Restoratives. They are very like the Emollients of Class 1, which are ‘such things as sheathe and soften the asperity of the humours and relax and supply the solids at the same time’. The restoratives have a peculiar quality he says, ‘they are of a more subtile and adhesive nature, whereby they pass the finest strainers or secretions, and enter into the nourishment of the remotest parts. All under this class are rather nutrimental than medicinal; and are more administered to repair the wastes of the constitution, than to alter and rectify its disorders. Whatsoever can answer this end, must be both endu’d with a disposition to enter into and mix with the most subtile of the animal fluids and to fall into and adhere with such interstices of the solids as have been wore away by action and stand in need of recruit’. Coltsfoot’s tonic as well as mucilage properties might be recognized here.

Ellingwood has no entry for coltsfoot. Cook, writing in the USA, confirms earlier uses to some extent and adds some new dimensions. He speaks only of the roots, however, which are stimulant and relaxant, of agreeable and warming taste, with some demulcent properties. ‘Its warm infusion promotes outward circulation, increases expectoration, and leaves a warm and slightly tonic impression’. Its principal use, he says, is for debilitated coughs, whooping cough and humid forms of asthma. He suggests combining it with cherry Prunus virginiana or boneset Eupatorium perfoliatum, although he adds, unlike most others, ‘its virtues have probably been overrated’. Use for chronic catarrh is then introduced, as a snuff; and then as a liver herb, though via another voice ‘Professor SE Carey tells me that this agent will prove fairly depurative to the liver in doses of half a drachm (2 g) three times a day; and that it is a good hepatic tonic of the moderately stimulating grade in scrofulous cases’. Thus we have a link made between the bitter nature of coltsfoot and its old external application for the skin. Is this a use from practical experience or a ‘Chinese whispers’ misinterpretation of the Ancients’ texts.