Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
What a non-descript, retiring little plant Groundsel is. Slightly droopy (especially in the hot weather we’re having in London at the moment), it lurks in the toughest corners of the urban environment, at the bottom of walls and in the smallest of cracks. But this is one tough plant. The Groundsel photographed here is growing in a spot which was blitzed with weed-killer about six weeks ago (much to my annoyance). Dog pee, blazing sun, tiny amounts of soil and huge amounts of pollution daunt it not. The name ‘Groundsel’ comes from the Old English for ‘Ground Swallower’, and it has advanced to all four corners of the globe, probably because its seeds have been mixed in with food crops.
Richard Mabey points out that the ‘Senecio’ part of the Latin name for Groundsel comes from the word for ‘Old Man’. With its seeds attached, the seedhead looks rather like Einstein’s hairdo, but when they are all gone, it looks like the (somewhat dimpled) head of a bald man.
I remember feeding my budgie on Groundsel and Chickweed, and it is said to persuade rabbits to feed when nothing else works. In ‘Watership Down’ by Richard Adams, one of the wisest rabbits was named Groundsel, which is maybe a nod to the animals’ dietary preferences. The seeds are also taken by sparrows and finches – I tend to forget that, before birdtables came along, wild birds did perfectly well finding food for themselves. Indeed, once upon a time a certain proportion of ‘weeds’ such as Groundsel were happily tolerated in our fields, and so there was plenty for birds to eat in rural areas. These days, the fields are less biodiverse than our gardens, and so the birds that are left come to us. For an agricultural approach to groundsel (otherwise known as ‘blasting it off the planet), have a look at the approach taken by Dow AgroSciences here, and weep.
Groundsel is a favourite food of Cinnabar and Flame-Shouldered Moths, and the Ragwort Plume Moth. In fact, the plants of the Groundsel family (which includes the Oxford Ragwort and various types of Fleabane) support an extraordinary number of butterflies and moths, and a partial list is included hereSo, the main habitats of this ancient weed are now our city streets and brownfield sites, our railway sidings and wastelands. This is why these sites can be so important, particularly for insects. At least on a derelict site, there are unlikely to be regular applications of insecticides and herbicides. Our greatest biodiversity is not found in ‘the countryside’ anymore, but in those marginal areas that have not (yet) been developed. It’s important to remember that a Cinnabar Moth caterpillar doesn’t care what an area looks like, just that it has enough to eat. For some more information about Brownfield sites, and why they are important to insects , I can recommend this article from Buglife, a charity worthy of support by anyone who cares about our invertebrate neighbours.