Wednesday Weed – Oxford Ragwort

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…..

Oxford Ragwort (Senecio squalidus)

Oxford Ragwort (Senecio squalidus)

Dear Readers, Oxford Ragwort is one of those plants whose roots are so deeply entangled with humankind as to be rare outside of urban and industrial areas. Unusually, its path to freedom is well documented, and yet again Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey can be our guide. It was first planted in the botanical gardens of Oxford University, having been reputedly gathered from the rocks of Mount Etna. We have noted on several occasions that plants of mountain habitats often make excellent city dwellers, as they have a built-in tolerance for poor, scant soil and bright, dry, exposed situations. Furthermore, the genus name ‘Senecio’ refers to the way that the air-borne seeds resemble the white hair of an elderly person.  So, with its tolerance for city streets and its wind-carried seeds, it was tailor-made for urban colonisation. By the 1830s its seeds had wafted on to the old walls of Oxford, but it was soon provided with a mechanism for a much more ambitious journey. Like Buddleia, it was greatly aided by the railways, in this case particularly the Great Western. Oxford Ragwort loved the clinker beds by the side of the track, which maybe reminded the plant of its volcanic home, and its downy seeds were carried along in the slipstream of the passing steam engines. And so it advanced through England and Wales, providing a cheerful yellow chorus for mile after mile of the route. Indeed, on a recent trip to Surrey it seemed as if the whole trackside was a great flowerbed of Oxford Ragwort.

IMG_2579I have a great personal fondness for Ragwort, which dates back to the days when Bugwoman was Bug-girl. I was forever trying to rear caterpillars, and was particularly attracted to the yellow and black larvae of the Cinnabar moth. What child could resist these tiger-striped beauties? I found three, and spent the whole summer finding Ragwort for them to feed on. When, eventually, they turned into conker-coloured chrysalises, I put them in a big sweet jar containing twigs for them to climb up on when they emerged. I then put the jar into the cool darkness of the coal bunker under the stairs, and checked on them every single day.

Caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth ("Tyria jacobaeae qtl1" by Quartl - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth (“Tyria jacobaeae qtl1” by Quartl – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The bright colouration of the caterpillar is a bit of a giveaway that the insect is poisonous, and it acquires this poison from its foodplant, which is any species of Ragwort that it can get its diminutive jaws into. The plant contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which can damage the liver of humans and some mammals, but it is these very chemicals which apparently excite the caterpillars, according to a study of ‘gustatory responsiveness‘. There has been a great deal of excitement in the UK recently about Ragwort being poisonous to horses. This is true, but a call to eliminate the plant altogether would be a disaster not just for the Cinnabar moth, but for the 150 other species of insect which eat it or feed on its nectar. For a measured response to the debate, I recommend this website, which lays out the issues for both horse and insect enthusiasts, and those lucky people who are both.

One day, I opened the door to the coal bunker to find that, responding to some innate signal, my moths had emerged. Two of them were hanging from the twigs, their wings like blood-streaked black velvet. One, however, had not made it. It had got trapped between the edge of the jar and the twig, and had died without its wings opening.

Adult Cinnabar moth ("Tyria jacobaeae-04 (xndr)" by Svdmolen - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -

Adult Cinnabar moth (“Tyria jacobaeae-04 (xndr)” by Svdmolen – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons )

This was an early introduction to the unfairness of life. How could this creature have made it all the way to the door of adulthood and then died? The occasion called for a ritual, and so I dragooned my poor younger brother into a moth funeral. I put the moth into a matchbox lined with cotton wool, while my sibling did the hard work of digging a grave. We solemnly processed the ten feet from the back door to the graveside. I intoned a few words while my brother looked solemnly on. Then, we laid a tombstone which consisted of a tile from the recent demolition of our fireplace. On it, in wax crayon, were scrawled the words:

‘Born only to die’.

I was a child of Victorian sensibilities, as you can see.

My little brother aged about 4 in 1966. What a long-suffering sibling he was. And is.

My little brother aged about 4 in 1966. What a long-suffering sibling he was. And is.

When I see Ragwort, I am instantly reminded of those days of childhood, when time stood still at the sight of a caterpillar scraping endless half-circles from a leaf and when a small ritual seemed the only way to right the world when something went wrong. I still feel most truly myself when I am totally absorbed in the goings on of a plant or an animal – time seems to fall away, along with all my mundane concerns. The phrase ‘inner-child’ makes many people cringe, and yet I think that all of us are like Russian Dolls, with our earlier versions still alive and sometimes kicking. To me, there is nothing wrong with that non-judgemental state of child-like wonder, when we have no preconceptions but truly ‘see’. I’m sure it’s a better tonic than anything the doctor could prescribe, and with no side-effects other than a new bounce in the step and a softer, more open heart.


12 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Oxford Ragwort

  1. thepoisongarden

    Just to mention that though Oxford ragwort is non-native the common ragwort is native to the UK. Much of the hysteria about it is fuelled by people claiming common ragwort is an invader.

    1. Bug Woman

      How interesting, I hadn’t thought about the ‘invasive species’ angle. Nothing like a tiny touch of xenophobia to liven up the debate, even if it’s completely incorrect. After all, horses are much more likely to come into contact with the native species I’d have thought, what with Oxford Ragwort being mainly urban.

      I love The Poison Garden website btw. It’s my first port of call for some sensible and interesting information on poisonous plants of all kinds.

  2. Pingback: Wednesday Weed – Buddleia | Bug Woman – Adventures in London

  3. Pingback: Wednesday Weed – Rosebay Willowherb | Bug Woman – Adventures in London

  4. Ken Beagley

    If you’ve not already seen these two Parliamentary Petitions that are both related to rewilding, here are the links –

    This one wants to Repeal the 1959 Weeds Act, which includes ragwort and needs help firstly to get to 10,000 votes here –
    and has the support of Matt Shardlow from Buglife on Twitter.
    Matt Shardlow‏ @MattEAShardlow Aug 21
    Please help to get rid of the Weeds Act, archaic bureaucracy that burdens farmers and conservationists and threatens rewildling efforts. Sign here … @B_Strawbridge @GeorgeMonbiot @stephhilborne @RewildingB @NFFNUK @kneppcastle @vickihird @samroddick

    This one is backed by Wild Justice and is in support of banning driven grouse beating
    There’s more information in their blog on the above website.

    I would be grateful if you could please pass this information on to relevant people.

    Many thanks,


    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Ken, I shall post both of these on my Facebook page. I see that the grouse shooting one is nearly up to 100k signatures, so I shall do my best to get it over the line!


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