Humans require salt for survival, plain and simple. While it’s easy enough to extract salt from seawater, that’s only practical if you’re near the coast. Inland sources of salt were well known to our ancestors, but most of that knowledge is long gone. Beyond natural deposits, it’s also possible to extract salt from plants. Some plants, especially salt-tolerant plants, can bioaccumulate salt in their tissues.
Many years ago, I found a reference to coltsfoot salt in The Wild Food Trail Guide. “Coltsfoot leaves also provide a substitute for salt: roll the leaves into balls and dry them before the fire; when thoroughly dry, burn them. The resulting ash is very salty and can be used in the wilderness to season food.”
Then a while later, I came across a reference to coltsfoot salt in Foods of the Americas: Native Foods and Traditions, which was put out by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. It says that “The ash produced by burning the dry leaves was used as a salt substitute by many indigenous people of North America. Dried coltsfoot leaves can be bought at health food stores. Simply burn them in a pan, allow the ashes to cool, and crumble for use.”
The book also notes that coltsfoot is found all across the US, and it was traditionally used to make coltsfoot tea (a cough remedy), and in more recent history, coltsfoot wine. It contains quite a few traditional recipes made with coltsfoot salt, including a recipe for traditional acorn bread made with acorn flour, which is salted with coltsfoot ash.
So how do you find and identify this plant-based salt substitute?
Making Coltsfoot Salt
Coltsfoot plants (Tussilago farfara) are about as common as dandelions, and chances are you pass one at some point on a daily basis, even in urban environments. They’re so common that once you know how to identify them, you’ll see it everywhere you go.
Coltsfoot especially loves poor, degraded and compacted soils along roadsides.
Every summer I plan on trying to extract salt from coltsfoot, but since it’s so common and has such a long season, I find myself putting it off. Every time I walk by that patch at the edge of the driveway I think, I’ll harvest some tomorrow. It’s nice to know that coltsfoot is around and available much of the year, even up here in our northern climate.
It took me about 3 seconds to harvest a large handful of leaves, plenty to get started making coltsfoot salt.
I laid the coltsfoot leaves out on my picnic table and left them to dry for about 12 hours in the sun. At that point, they were quite dry and ready for the first coltsfoot salt experiment.
Starting with bundles of 3 or 4 leaves, I rolled them into a tight cylinder of leaves. Some of the leaves cracked as I made the roll, but they held together well enough.
Since I was taking pictures, I called my husband out and handed him the roll. He looks at me and says, “So what’s the plan here, are you going to smoke that whole thing?”
That certainly wasn’t the plan, but coltsfoot was smoked traditionally by native peoples. Coltsfoot has a long history of use as a cure for respiratory issues, and it contains anti-inflammatory compounds that were delivered directly to the lung tissues through smoking.
I made a medicinal wine out of coltsfoot blossoms this past spring, hoping to preserve some of the coltsfoot cough medicine. Drying the leaves and smoking them would be quite a bit easier.
Coltsfoot doesn’t smell great fresh. But as we lit the first bundle, I was amazed by the pleasant smell of the smoke. It smelled vaguely of fresh American Spirit cigarettes, but without the harsh notes. I’m not a smoker, and never have been, but it smelled good enough that I did give it a try. I have to say, it was lovely.
My husband, who was a smoker 10 years ago, gave it a try and was also impressed. He said, “If I had an ounce of pipe tobacco to carry me through the winter 100 years ago, I would have been cutting it heavily with this.”
While I expected to have to hold a flame to the leaves continuously, but once they were lit, they continued to smolder and all it took was a gentle breath of air every now and then to keep it burning. The problem is, when I blow on the tip of the burning coltsfoot roll, the ashes blow away. Smoking them actually helped keep the fire stoked without losing the ashes.
Most sources I found say that the leaves were dried and then bundled in some manner before being burned on a flat rock. I tried the flat rock method, but there wasn’t enough airflow. The fire quickly went out without producing much ash.
I kept applying more flame, but it didn’t help. It’s tricky finding a way to burn the coltsfoot where it continuously stays lit but also doesn’t lose the ash as you fan the flames.
In the end, I very carefully blew on the flames and then tapped off the ash onto a plate. Lifting the bundle away from the plate each time I blew helped kept the ashes from blowing away.
A single bundle of 3-4 leaves yielded about one fluffy tablespoon of ash. Powdered down it is perhaps 1/4 teaspoon of coltsfoot salt.
How does coltsfoot salt taste? Surprisingly neutral. The ash itself doesn’t taste like anything, just mildly salty. That’s the idea I suppose, to add salt without adding other off-flavors. I would happily add it to my food as a salt source, but I’ll have to find a more efficient way to make it.
I think that all the leaves placed into a large dutch oven might be the best way. The dutch oven would keep the ash contained, and it could be lit and then hung over the fire to keep it hot and provide a good draft of hot air from the flames in the campfire below.
Is Coltsfoot Toxic?
That’s tricky…it does have a long history of use in herbal medicine and has been consumed by humans for millennia. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe.
As a tea, the leaves were always consumed for short periods of time to treat acute cough, and most sources I’ve found seem to indicate that short-term use is perfectly fine. Long-term use, and use by pregnant women and children though, can be incredibly hazardous. It contains low levels of a toxic alkaloid that damages the liver, and there have been multiple documented cases where young children when given a coltsfoot tea daily by their mothers for a year or more eventually developed fatal complications.
That said, there’s a difference between tea and plant ash. I’d imagine the alkaloids are destroyed in the burning process, leaving just mineral ashes behind as a salt substitute. This is the only way I can explain the long-term use by native peoples, which flavored their food with coltsfoot salt daily over the course of decades.
Still, there’s no guarantee for safety, given that it hasn’t been tested.
If you’re curious, you can read more about coltsfoot toxicity and potentially safe doses and uses in this study.
Other Salt Containing Plants
I’ve seen a few other references to extracting salt from plants besides coltsfoot, but they’re scattered. Stinging nettles may be another source of wild salt, but I haven’t found any dependable sources one way or the other. Some sources make it seem like nettles were ground up and blended into salt to add flavor and minerals, others seem to suggest that nettles were the salt source. It’s unclear.
As a child, I read a book called My Side of the Mountain, about a 14-year-old boy who runs off into the wilderness and survives for a full year, reading a survivalist book he picked up at the library. It’s a great boy adventure novel, and has detailed pictures of animal traps, along with just about everything else the boy makes to survive. He baits a deer trap with a ball of homemade salt lick, made by boiling hickory roots.
I’ve since seen many other references to boiled hickory root salt. The resulting tar-like substance supposedly makes a tasty salt. I can’t test this one unfortunately because hickory trees aren’t native to Vermont. They cover much of the east coast, but they only go up as far as Massachusetts.
Beyond hickory roots, I’ve also seen a few references to extracting salt from wild parsnip and wild carrot roots. This seems less believable, as the roots would quickly form a pulp and cook down into a carrot or parsnip paste. Parsnips and carrots, wild or otherwise, aren’t particularly salty.
I would love to hear any other plants that contain a substantial amount of salt. Please share anything you might know, experiences or hearsay, in the comments.