Sandy’s Garden ... Senecio Jacobea

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

The plant name Senecio is derived from the Latin word ‘senex’, which means an old man.

But another word from ‘senex’ is in more common use nowadays - senile, as in senile dementia. However, Senecio is not so named because the plant has, to be cruel, lost the place. Senecio warrants its name by virtue of the fluffy, white seed heads which appear in the late summer, each of which contains large numbers of seed waiting to be dispersed far and wide by the wind, a characteristic which makes Senecio difficult to eradicate after it has become established in an area. And the second, specific element in Senecio jacobaea’s name … for Senecio is the name of a family of plants … comes from another Latin word ‘jacobus’ which translates in to English as James; so Senecio jacobaea is the member of the family named in honour of Saint James.

Most people, however, will refer to the plant by one of its common names, rather than by its botanical nomenclature. Previous generations of Scots called it beaweed, or benweed, bowlocks or stinking weed; in the Stirlingshire of yesteryear it was known as stinking alisander, while Fifers used to call it stinking davies and many Scots called it stinking Willie, a name which was given to the plant in dishonour of William, Duke of Cumberland, who led the English army which defeated the Scots at the bloody battle of Culloden and a name which crossed the Atlantic and is still used in the United States; and then, as now, the plant was widely called ragwort.

What brings this to mind is a remark made by a friend of long standing … I find the term ‘old friend’ just a little too near the bone … that she thought there was more ragwort than ever to be seen this summer. And certainly its tall stems and their vivid, yellow, daisy-like flowers with their more orange centres can be widely seen in dry grassy land all around the eastern parts of Falkirk district. Presumably because it likes to live in dry, grassy surroundings, ragwort is very seldom found in gardens. Yet its abundance in the countryside is not good news, for ragwort is a nasty piece of work, every bit of which is poisonous. Consider this quotation from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS): “The Weeds Act specifies five injurious weeds: common ragwort, spear thistle, creeping or field thistle, broad-leaved dock and curled dock. The Ragwort Control Act 2003 (which amends the Weeds Act 1959), imposes a duty of responsibility on landowners to effectively control Senecio jacobaea, preventing its spread onto grazing land.”

“Cattle and horses are particularly susceptible to poisoning. Cutting, wilting and the treatment with herbicides make ragwort more palatable to livestock and poisoning mainly arises from eating contaminated hay,” the RHS website continues. Fortunately, the average grazing animal doesn’t usually eat the growing plant, so it’s not a great problem during the summer months. But silage harvested as winter feed for livestock from fields in which ragwort is growing does pose problems, for grazing animals will, and do, readily eat dead ragwort in their winter feed. It’s rare for an animal to eat a sufficient quantity to be killed by the weed; but many are made unwell be this pest; and, given that landowners have a legal responsibility to control ragwort and to prevent it from spreading, it is surprising to find quite as much of it growing all around my home area. And there are plenty of effective chemical treatments available, although the landowner must better the weed’s persistence, for eradication of ragwort from infested land may take fifteen years. Still, most of us have to honour our obligations; and quite a few landowners really should be honouring theirs.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society