Nature Watch: Dandelion look-a-like actually coltsfoot
Q: Being new to life in the country, we wonder where a good place -- not too far -- would be to learn about "South County" nature, and also, what we thought were very early dandelions on closer inspections are something else. Any idea? They look like very small dandelions growing alongside a dirt road. -- New Comer from Philly, Great Barrington
A: My suggestion would be to investigate Bartholomew's Cobble in the village of Ashley Falls (Sheffield). There you will see more wildflowers and ferns than anywhere else in the Berkshires. And, outside their small nature center is a billboard with photographs naming the flowers now in blossom. Field trips led by knowledgeable volunteers or staff are also available. Introduce yourself to Rene Wendell the resident naturalist. He is a wealth of information.
As for your miniature dandelion, what you found is called coltsfoot -- among the very first blossoms of the season, and brilliant as the sunshine itself. From a distance the two flowers do look alike, but upon close inspection, coltsfoot has yellow rays that surround a yellow orange disk, while dandelion has yellow rays and no disk. You will notice when you see them again that there are no leaves at this time, but will appear later, after flowering is done. If they had leaves while flowering there would be less confusing them with the dandelion, with its long toothy leaves. Coltsfoot leaves are round.
Many may remember Euell Gibbons (1911-1975), who popularized wild plant foraging through his book "Stalking The Wild Asparagus," published in 1962. I no longer have a copy, but recall his promoting coltsfoot leaves for making a cough lozenge. It wasn't his discovery, being long known in its native countries -- Europe, North Africa and Asia -- as a popular folk remedy. Its scientific name, Tussilago farfara, is taken from the Latin tussis meaning "cough dispeller," and is responsible for the cough medicine Robitussin's name. Back in the 19th century the remedy was popular, being made from an extract of the leaves and honey or sugar and fashioned into palatable candies readily accepted by youngsters, provided there was enough sweetness. It was then referred to as coughwort. Asthmatics would smoke the dry leaves for relief. I tried it, mixed with pipe tobacco and it didn't work for me. Besides treating respiratory problems, this early sign of spring was used to treat insect bites, diarrhea, phlebitis. And while the majority of Americans have undoubtedly found better remedies, bees rely on this early flowering provider for nectar.
Q:Robins have built a substantial nest on top of a porch awning. The problem is shutters are to be replaced in a couple of weeks. I took it down in hopes they could rebuild elsewhere before there were any eggs. Overnight they rebuilt a large nest in same place. Any ideas? -- Barbara
A: My first suggestion is to postpone shutter installation on that side of the house until later in the season. Otherwise, take the nest down again and put something on the awning to prevent their rebuilding. Maybe open it (or close it). Birds are persistent, though. Google "robin nest platform." Maybe something can be made to attract the birds elsewhere.
Questions and comments for Thom Smith: Email Naturewatch@live.com