Sandy’s Garden

A Thoroughly Nasty Piece of Work

A trained botanist would call it Senecio jacobaea or Jacobaea vulgaris; a resident of the Isle of Man might call it Cushag; an Irishman might identify it as Benweed; travel through England and Wales and you will find people call it St. James-wort, Cankerwort, Stammerwort, Stinking Nanny and Mare’s Fart among many other names. But most people would recognise it as Ragwort, a plant found throughout the British Isles with straight, erect stems standing anything from 0.3 metres to 2 metres in height … say between 1 foot and 6 feet … with bright yellow florets, each up to an inch in diameter grouped into dense, flat-topped clusters which appear during the month of June and can last right through the summer and autumn into November. And it’s a thoroughly nasty piece of work, an unwelcome immigrant from Europe and Asia that has found much of these islands of ours very much to its liking.

And it’s not the unpleasant smell from the leaves that makes me describe it as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, although that smell is the reason for common names like Stinking Nanny or Mare’s Fart. Ragwort is a thoroughly nasty piece of work because of the poisonous properties of the eighteen different alkaloids which have been identified in the plant. (Alkaloids are organic compounds found in many plants and include nicotine, quinine, cocaine, and morphine; they tend to be known either for their poisonous or their medicinal attributes, the former in the case of the wide range of alkaloids found in Ragwort.) And Ragwort poses a very real threat to some farmed animals for, although the toxins are very unlikely to result in a quick death for any animals that eat the plant, the alkaloids produce a breakdown product which has a cumulative, damaging effect on DNA which slowly destroys the affected animal’s liver. Ragwort is, indeed, a thoroughly nasty piece of work!

Although horses will not normally eat Ragwort growing in fields where they graze, being deterred by its bitter taste, they are at particular risk from eating Ragwort inadvertently fed to them in hay, for the plant loses this bitterness when it is dried, leading to irreversible cirrhosis of the liver if a sufficient quantity is eaten. Strangely enough, sheep seem to enjoy small quantities of Ragwort, although they, too, will develop cirrhosis of the liver if they eat much of this noxious weed, as will free-range pigs, goats and cattle. And, before you ask what the government is doing abut this, as far back as 1959 the Weeds Act nominated five plants as ‘injurious weeds’ … Ragwort being one of these … and conferred on the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs powers to order landowners or occupiers to prevent the spread of the plant, although it is not illegal to allow Ragwort to grow on your land and there is no general statutory requirement to control its spread. And there may be a certain empiricism about this lack of any legal provision to control it, for Ragwort produces large numbers of fluffy seedheads that are distributed by the wind and is a very difficult plant to eradicate as anyone who walks around the Falkirk area can tell, for it can be widely seen growing in fields, on derelict land, in roadside verges and even in some unkempt gardens.

Ragwort poses little direct threat to people, for it is not used in the preparation of any foodstuffs or medicines; and even young children who might be attracted to it by its temptingly bright colour will spit out any of the bitter flowers that they taste. But if it does appear in your garden, be sure to don long gloves before you pull it out by the roots; and, although I don’t like bonfires, the best way to get rid of the pulled-up plants is to burn them.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society