Jacobaea vulgaris, also known as Senecio jacobaea is a very common wild flower in the family Asteraceae that is native to northern Eurasia, usually in dry, open places, and has also been widely distributed as a weed elsewhere.
Common names include ragwort, benweed, tansy ragwort, St. James-wort, ragweed, Stinking Nanny/Ninny/Willy, staggerwort, Dog Standard, cankerwort, stammerwort, mare's fart and cushag.
Ragwort is not usually a significant problem in gardens, but its poisonous qualities can make it a serious weed of paddocks and gardens backing onto fields grazed by horses or cattle.
Ragworth has a number of other names including "Stinking Willy" and "Mare's Fart". These arise from the fact that this plant foliage has an unpleasant smell.
The poet John Clare had a more positive opinion of the plant, as revealed in this poem of 1831:
Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come & litter gold...
Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields
The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn
So bright & glaring that the very light
Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn
& seems but very shadows in thy sight.
On the Isle of Man, the Ragwort, known locally as Cushag, is the national flower, despite the fact, that like here, farmers are obliged to clear it from their land.
Ragwort is a tall erect plant to 90cm (3ft) bearing large flat-topped clusters of yellow daisy-like flowers from July to October. It has finely divided leaves with a basal rosette of deeply-cut, toothed leaves.
The plant is usually a biennial (living only two years and flowering in its second year) but damage to the base of the plant can make the plant behave like a perennial (living indefinitely), as new rosettes are formed.
Poisonous to Horse and Cattle
Ragwort is rarely a problem in gardens but may occur in pony paddocks, railway embankments and areas of unimproved pasture. 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.
Only in exceptional circumstances or when there is a food shortage, horses will eat fresh Ragwort. Horses, however, don't recognize dried Ragwort plants as poisonous and contaminated hay may cause Ragwort poisoning. Incidentally ingesting small amounts of Ragwort will not result in illness. If, however, horses eat several kilograms of Ragwort a day or small amounts for extended periods, this may lead to irreparable liver damage.
In reality, the dead plant, unseen in a bale of hay, is far more harmful than all the living plants seen along roadsides and in fields.
Although Ragworts can be a significant nuisance to horse keepers, these species are a very important source of nectar and pollen.
At least 77 invertebrate species have been recorded eating Ragwort leaves, or living in the stems and flowers. About 52 of these are known to regularly feed on Ragwort and, more importantly, 30 species are entirely dependant on Ragwort, the Cinnabar moth for example, a beautiful macro moth. About a third of these 30 species are scarce or rare.
Ragwort is also an important nectar source for over one hundred species (117, says English Nature) of butterflies (Small copper is just one), bees, moths, flies and other invertebrates, helping to maintain insect populations generally in the UK countryside.
The efficiency of wind dispersal
Scientific research into the efficiency of wind dispersal of ragwort seeds shows that most seeds land close to the mother plant. Only 0.5% of all seeds that a plant produces travel more than 25 meters. Although each of the up to 200.000 seeds has a chance to be dispersed far away from the mother plant, only a few seeds get that far in reality. The majority doesn’t get much further than several meters away. It is, however, important to realize that it only takes a single seed to be dispersed over a large distance to enable this species to reach a new area.
Ragwort like all other wildflowers subject to regular surveys by botanists. The recent surveys show its distribution has not changed significantly since the 1960s. The 2007 UK Countryside Survey shows significant declines of ragwort.
Folk Sayings and Folklore
I come from the Isle of Man. My father told me that ragwort was a magical plant; if you pulled it you had to apologise to it, or else the fairies might get you. He wasn’t a Manxman himself, but he might have got it from an old Manxman [Natural History Museum, London, December 1995].
Ta airh er cushagyn ayns shen.
"There is gold on cushags there."
Cushag is the Manx name of the weed, Ragwort, which grows luxuriantly in Man. The expression is an ironical one, and was used when people spoke disparagingly of the Island, and boastingly of other places.
In my native Highlands masses of the common ragwort grows in fields, roadsides, etc. … it is usually referred to in the North as Stinking Willie, partly on account of its unpleasant smell, but more for the fact that it sprang up everywhere that William, Duke of Cumberland, otherwise the Butcher, had been when he perpetrated the massacre after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and Stinking Willie it has remained.
The seeds were supposed to have come from the fodder provided for the Butcher’s horses [Evesham, Worcestershire, January 1982].
Throughout Scotland there was a belief that witches and fairies travelled on ragwort stalks: 'Tell how wi' you on ragweed nags, They skim the moors and dizzy crags [Robert burns, Address to the Deil, verse 9, 1785]
Ragwort was formerly much employed medicinally for various purposes. The leaves are used in the country for emollient poultices and yield a good green dye, not, however, permanent. The flowers boiled in water give a fair yellow dye to wool previously impregnated with alum.
The whole plant is bitter and aromatic, of an acrid sharpness, but the juice is cooling and astringent, and of use as a wash in burns, inflammations of the eye, and also in sores and cancerous ulcers - hence one of its old names, Cankerwort.
It is used with success in relieving rheumatism, sciatica and gout, a poultice of the green leaves being applied to painful joints and reducing the inflammation and swelling. It makes a good gargle for ulcerated throat and mouth, and is said to take away the pain caused by the sting of bees. A decoction of the root has been reputed good for inward bruises and wounds. In some parts of the country Ragwort is accredited with the power of preventing infection
d'l'entaillie (also may be heard as entaillée in the East of the Island)
du gros snichon (this name is more common in the East of the Island - snichon on its own refers to groundsel and various spp of Senecio)
In literature, snichon (or s'nichon, variant spelling) turns up in Frank Le Maistre's version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (adapted from FitzGerald's English translation during the Occupation):
Et va douochement à chutte touffe dé S'nichon,
Prend garde dé n'l'êglianmi; Pouor tchi raison?
Sai-tu tch'est tch'a pâssé tout près d'vant té
Ou tchi belle Main li'a touchi? - Tu n'sai pon!
(And this reviving Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River-Lip on which we lean—
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!)