A range of flowers in Colins Paddock

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Ragwort - Senecio jacobaea

ragwort_315Making my way to the Down on 4th July I wondered whether I would find any flowers still flourishing in the middle of so vicious a drought. I needn't have worried. Before I had even left the car park my eye was caught by a splash of yellow on the edge of Colin's Wood. Waist high, with unwilted leaves and masses of bright flowers, stood Ragwort - the flamboyant Robin Hood of our flora, captain of that brigand band of weeds supposedly, but ineffectively, outlawed by The Weeds Act of 1959. That it should be taken so seriously by the authorities is perhaps not surprising for in the days before we had effective herbicides it was one of the farmer's most pernicious enemies.

Ragwort is a biennial or, occasionally, a short-lived perennial. The plants overwinter as rosettes of leaves, producing in the following season flowering stems which will often grow to three feet even on the light, infertile soils which are their favourite habitat.

From July to October flat-topped clusters of bright yellow, daisy-like flowers are produced, each consisting of some 70 tubular florets surrounded by about 15 ray-florets. Each fertilised floret produces a seed (technically a single seeded fruit) topped by a pappus of about 60 feathery hairs which facilitates wind-borne dispersal. An averaged size plant will bear between 50,000 and 60,000 such seeds, 80% of which will be capable of germination so the progeny of a single plant can soon colonize a large area. In this way ragwort has spread through its natural range from Western Europe to Siberia and north-west India. Accidentally introduced by settlers, it has also become the bane of farmers in New Zealand and North America.

ragwort_flowerIt is not, however, merely its profligacy and competitiveness which call forth the wrath of the farmer, more particularly it is its toxic effect on his livestock. Cattle and horses will not graze the green plants in the field (though sheep appear to eat the young foliage with impunity) but if the flowering stems are cut with hay, cattle will eat them and can suffer severely in consequence. One symptom of ragwort poisoning is that affected beasts 'walk with a staggering gait' - which, say some authorities, explains the plant's old name of 'staggerwort'. Others beg to differ and trace the name to ragwort having been used as 'a certain remedie to help the staggers in horses'. But perhaps both are right for, according to the principles of homeopathic medicine, 'a little of what is harmful does you good'. Certainly the old herbalists found the plant useful in the treatment of a number of human ills, from quincy and catarrh to what Culpepper delicately called 'old and filthy ulcers in the privities'.

Two insects associated with ragwort deserve special mention: the ragwort seedfly, which lays its eggs in the flower heads, and the cinnabar moth whose voracious black-and-yellow caterpillars can quickly denude a plant of its leaves. Both of these have been introduced into New Zealand in an attempt to achieve biological control of the weed.

In folklore, ragwort stems have provided steeds for both fairies and witches. Robbie Burns bids the Devil

Let Warlocks grim an' withered Hags
Tell how wi' you on ragweed nags
They skim the muirs an' dizzy crags
Wi' wicked speed.

Despite ragwort's lurid reputation as witches' weed and cattle killer, its botanical name leaves us with the gentler image of an aged saint. Its white-haired fruits blow away to leave the receptacle as bare as a bald head - hence Senecio (senex = old man); and jacobaea comes from the Latin for James - the herba sancti Jacobi, as once it was known, coming into full flower around the feast of St. James (25th July).

David Yarham
September 1995

See also...

Report of the visit from Cambridge Natural History Society in August 2017


News about a visit by the local branch of Butterfly Conservation charity taking place in August 2016


News about the very special area of Colin's Bank, published in February 2015

Pasque Flower

One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.pasqueflower_jb_may2016_crop_453

Photo by Jill Butler