Tuesday, 17 July 2018


Ragwort, as many people will have noticed, is currently turning waste ground, roadside verges, sand dunes and any neglected land, into a blaze of gold. Ever since I was a youth, and indeed long before that, it was Senecio jacobaea, but the genus Senecio was a huge, unwieldy and artificial assemblage of plants. Large-scale revision has taken place over the last couple of decades but the genus is still huge, numbering well in excess of a thousand species. One consequence of all this reorganisation is that ragwort is now Jacobaea vulgaris.
A blaze of gold. Ragwort on waste ground, Leamington Way, Daventry.
17 July, 2018

Despised by farmers and causing alarm when appearing in pastures it is nevertheless a favourite of mine and is widely misunderstood. John Clare, significantly a farmworker,  was fond of it too:

                           Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves
                           I love to see thee come and litter gold,
                           What time the summer binds her russet sheaves;
                           Decking rude spots in beauties manifold...

It is these 'tattered leaves' to which the name ragwort refers.
Ragwort: the leaves are deeply pinnately lobed, i.e. 'ragged'.
Leamington Way, Daventry. 17 July, 2018

George Claridge Druce, in his flora of Northamptonshire (Druce, 1930) referred to it as 'pascual', a more or less obsolete word meaning 'of pastures', and yet that is the very habitat wherein it can cause problems. There is no doubt that, if eaten by cattle or horses it can have serious consequences leading to liver failure. I am no farmer but I have wandered over ragwort-infested land only to see that the plants have been carefully avoided by stock. Its taste is apparently unpleasant and its smell has led it to being known in Cheshire as 'Mare's Fart'. It seems that it will only be consumed if no other food is available. I would not go so far as to suggest that hungry stock feeding on ragwort is suffering from neglect but...

The fact is that it has been native to Britain for many thousands of years - millennia during which wild boar, horses (Exmoor ponies for example) and deer have somehow survived this apparently deadly weed. People always seem inclined to believe alarmist, stupid or factually incorrect stories (hence the extraordinary survival of the Daily Mail).

My fondness for ragwort stems not just for way it decks our countryside; it is of great ecological importance. According to Isabella Tree 'Seven species of beetle, twelve species of flies, one macromoth...and seven micromoths feed exclusively on common ragwort' (Tree, 2018). Well in excess of 150 insect species visit ragwort for its pollen and nectar.

Frequently ragwort can become a problem, with hundreds of plants occupying pasture land. Fortunately it is the food plant for the caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth, Tyria jacobaeae, and within weeks these voracious feeders can make great inroads into what Isabella Tree refers to jokingly as 'the yellow peril'. The fact is, it is a native plant and part of our botanical heritage. From time to time it becomes a nuisance but the problem is largely of our own making; if we were less liberal with insecticides there would be a range of creatures available to feed on it. At least 30 insect species, according to the charity Buglife,  - 'are entirely reliant on Ragwort'. For another 20 or so it is an important pabulum. Isabella Tree underestimated!

For some reason the tachinid fly, Eriothrix rufomaculata, seems very fond
of ragwort flowers. Note the reddish flanks of the abdomen.
Leamington Way, Daventry. 17 July, 2018
As a wildlife enthusiast, whenever I see a patch of ragwort I hurry over, if the opportunity exists, to see what insects are working the flowers; I rarely leave disappointed.


Druce, G.C. (1930) The Flora of Northamptonshire. T. Buncle & Co., Arbroath

Tree, Isabella, (2018) Wilding: the return of nature to a British Farm. Picador, London

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