Sandy’s Garden ... Groundsel

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On Wednesday, February 6, 1952, Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh were visiting Aberdare National Park in Kenya.

Near the township of Nyeri, some 2000 metres above sea level … that’s more than 6000 feet in old money, they were the most important guests at the Treetops Hotel, the best-known of a number of Kenyan hotels which attracted rich European guests to view the local wildlife. These hotels were, literally, built into the tops of trees beside watering holes and salt licks, natural features that attracted wildlife which the hotels’ guests could view from the complete safety of viewing platforms. And Wednesday, 6 February 1952 was the date of the death of King George VI, Princess Elizabeth’s father, meaning that she had inherited the throne and was no longer Princess Elizabeth; she was now Queen Elizabeth.

One must suppose that the shock of the news of her father’s death, the urgency to make arrangements to return to the United Kingdom and the general commotion inevitable at such a time caused the royal party to lose interest in the wildlife that regularly came to the immediate environs of the Treetops Hotel. But, since the young couple had gone to see the wild animals which roamed Aberdare National Park, they may never have paid much heed to the flora of this part of the Aberdare range of mountains which form the eastern wall of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, an African alpine woodland said to be reminiscent of Scotland with its huge expanses of rolling heather and … and here I quote from a traveller’s description of the landscape … “giant lobelia”. I have to say that I wouldn’t expect to find giant lobelia growing wild in this country! I would, however, expect to find another wild plant in Scotland which is also found in Aberdare National Park; and that is groundsel.

Groundsel is what gardeners would term a weed that has a wonderful habit of appearing in disturbed ground … like soil which a gardener is trying to till. Obviously, since it occurs naturally throughout the whole of the British Isles and, indeed, in many other parts of the world, disturbed ground is not its only habitat. It is a low, short-stemmed annual, meaning that it germinates from seed, grows, flowers, produces seed and dies in a single year. Its flowers are yellow and are charmingly described as ‘usually brush-like’; and if you think of a tiny, upturned floor brush you have a good idea of what the plant’s flowerhead looks like. The leaves are vaguely reminiscent of those of the dandelion. Botanically, groundsel’s Sunday name is Senecio vulgaris … the vulgar, or common, member of the Senecio family; and the family name comes from the Latin word ‘senex’, meaning an old man, so named because the fluffy, white seedheads were thought to resemble an old man’s beard.

Groundsel has been known in Scotland for as far back as can be traced. The Gaels have a fascinating name for it – am bualan, meaning ‘the remedy’, for the plant’s leaves were highly-valued for their use in preparing poultices to deal with skin problems. In her splendid book, The Scots Herbal, Tess Darwin quotes from Martin Martin’s A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland 1695 … and that’s not a misprint; the author really was Martin Martin. “To ripen a tumour or boil, they cut female jacobea small, mix it with some fresh butter on a hot stone, and apply it warm; and this ripens and draws the tumour quickly and without pain; the same remedy is used for women’s breasts that are hard or swelled.” Jacobea is, strictly, a first cousin to groundsel but, having similar chemical compounds in its leaves, is interchangeable for this use, which you should not try for yourself. But I doubt whether the new Queen knew, or cared, about the virtues of a highly-valued weed 61 years ago.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society