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'Son-Before-Father': Colt's-foot a breaker of rules


Sometimes leaves are coated with fine cottony hairs

Sometimes leaves are coated with fine cottony hairs

Sometimes leaves are coated with fine cottony hairs

You might think that 'Son-before-father' is an unlikely name for a wildflower but that old folk name was used widely for many years for the plant we now know as Colt's-foot.

It is assumed that the name 'Son-before-father' was coined by herbalists as Colt's-foot had many uses in folk medicine, especially as a cough remedy and in treating conditions of the lungs. Apart from herbalists, few other people would have seen a need to put a name on the plant that was otherwise of little or no use to people.

Most plants leaf out when the winter has passed, and the flowers follow in late spring or early summer. As a rule; leaves come first, and flowers follow. Colt's-foot breaks that rule; its flowers come before its leaves. It is believed that that simple observation is the source of the name 'Son-before-father'.

Over time, the old folk name fell into disuse and the standard English name for the plant became 'Colt's-foot'. A colt is, of course, a young male horse and the more recent name refers to the fact that the plant's roundish leaves, as illustrated above, are about the size and shape of the foot or hoof of a young horse.

Colt's-foot is not the only plant to break the rule of leaves before flowers. A much more common example is Blackthorn, that common, spiny hedgerow shrub that bears sloes in autumn. Blackthorn flowers between late March and early May, its small, pretty white flowers appearing either singly or in pairs on the very dark, almost blackish, bark that gives the thorny shrub its name.

A member of the groundsel tribe in the daisy family, Colt's-foot has a bright yellow flower somewhat like a Dandelion. It flowers in late winter or early spring often sporting its colourful flowerheads as early as February without a leaf in sight.

While its leaves are roundish, the margin of each one flares out in a number of short, pointed teeth. The surface of each leaf is coated with a dense growth of fine, cottony hairs, as illustrated above. The upper surfaces of leaves regular lose that pubescence, but it usually remains on the undersides.

Colt's-foot is native to Ireland and is commonly found in every county. It grows in many different habitats ranging from fields and roadsides to shingle and gravel banks by the seaside. It grows particularly well in clay soils and shows a preference for open and disturbed ground.

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