Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Wrestling with Ragwort

I spent this afternoon wrestling with my conscience while pulling up the Ragwort plants which had escaped our recent weed spraying in the big field. This is an ongoing and essential task for me as Ragwort contains a number of alkaloids which make it highly poisonous to animals and earning it a very bad reputation, particularly among those who keep horses and cattle. Having said that though, the proven instances of Ragwort poisoning are actually very rare, as fresh ragwort has a bitter taste which tends to deter most animals from eating it. But it does become much more palatable when it’s dried and can therefore be very dangerous if mixed into hay bales or left where naughty sheep like mine can find it!

Pulling up when the plants in full flower
 is the best way to remove the roots
Despite its designation as one of the five plants named as an injurious weed under the provisions of the weeds Act 1959, and the fact that as a land occupier this act requires me to prevent the spread of the plant as part of the Ragwort Control Act 2003, I think Ragwort gets a much worse press than it deserves. So despite its lethal qualities and its unpopularity with many smallholders, I’m going to tell the other side of the Ragwort story.

Ragwort is a tall and elegant plant with wonderfully golden clusters of daisy like flower heads on straight, ribbed stems and surrounded by dark green frilly edged leaves. I manage it on my land for the sake of my animals (and my equestrian neighbours), but I love to see it growing abundantly and freely where it can do little harm.

A haven for bees
After all, it wasn’t always seen as the scourge it is today, and from medieval times to the mid 20th century, Ragwort was used as a cure for inflammations of the eye, cancerous ulcers, rheumatism, sciatica, gout and painful joints. The ancient Greeks and Romans also used it to make an aphrodisiac called satyrion but please don’t try this at home! The last figure of Satyr that I saw looked as though he would have terrible trouble playing the piano! The Ragwort leaves were also once used to make green dye and the flowers used to create the colours yellow, brown and orange. So this is a plant once famous for far more than its poison.

You see in my opinion, nothing’s ever all bad, and even though Ragwort is no longer used to keep us bright eyed and bushy tailed, the plant still has a very important use. The alkaloids that make Ragwort poisonous to humans and animals are also what make it an ideal source of food for the caterpillars of the rapidly declining Cinnabar moth.  By absorbing the plant’s alkaloids, these little caterpillars become distasteful to predators, a feature that they advertise by their black and yellow warning stripes. The red and black, day-flying adult moth is also distasteful to many potential predators as a result of snacking on this much maligned weed.

cinnabar caterpillar
In fact Ragwort provides a home and a food source to at least 77 insect species in the UK and 30 of these species use Ragwort exclusively as their food source. 10 of these 30 are rare or threatened insect species, including the Picture Winged Fly, the scarce Clouded Knot Horn micro moth, and the Sussex Emerald micro moth. Ragwort also provides a significant part of the diet of a further 22 species of moth, along with 117 species of solitary bees, hoverflies, moths, and butterflies etc who use it as a nectar source.

So, for me Ragwort is not just beautiful and deadly, it’s also a very important part of the natural environment and ecosystem. The next time you pull it, cut it, spray it or burn it, perhaps you will wrestle with your conscience too. 


  1. Great post and well observed as usual.

  2. Thanks Hannah,

    can I count you as a ragwort fan?

    1. Much like you Sue. I am always so sad to pull it but I do get my small field cut and can't risk leaving it. I love to see it on verges though.

  3. I've noticed lots of cinnabar moth caterpillars on the groundsel on our plot this year so have been less speedy with weeding - a case of check before you pull up

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