Dear Readers, when I was on my walk from Beckenham to Crystal Palace last week I was impressed by the sheer volume of groundsel. I have seen it growing weedily from cracks in the pavement in North London, but it seems to be at its happiest growing amongst the plantain and dandelions on a patch of proper rough ground.
This is a plant that has been with us ever since we first colonised the UK, and I love its old-fashioned quality, although as each plant can produce up to 1700 seeds three times per year, it is not so popular in other parts of the world. Furthermore, after drying and cold storage for three years the plant still achieved a germination rate of 87%, and it should be very proud of itself. However, groundsel is not thought to be particularly harmful to native plants or to crops, unless you happen to be a mint farmer in Washington State. Who knew that there were mint farmers? I learn something every day on this blog. My Nan used to say that mint ‘goes seven times to the devil and once to you’, but in my experience if mint is happy you might as well give up all hope of growing anything else in that particular spot.
There is some debate about whether groundsel is toxic, either to humans or to animals, but it is clear that it was used as a purge, something that was often the case with plants that were mildly poisonous. For your delectation I present this tale collected by Roy Vickery who, along with Richard Mabey are my go-to people for the folklore and historical uses of UK plants. The description is rather graphic and the language is rather salty, so you might want to scroll past if you’re of a delicate disposition.
‘Mr Joby House, who used to be at Hewood, told us that, for constipation, you boiled groundsel and lard and take that and you will shit through the eye of a needle. His sister Lucy had constipation so bad that when the doctor called in the morning he said Lucy would be dead by 5 o’clock. Mrs. House went to the gypsies (Mrs. Penfold)…and she told her how to cure her. The doctor came late in the day, and Lucy was running around; there was shit everywhere. The doctor had brought Lucy’s death certificate, but he was so mad he tore it up and put it in the fire’ (From The Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore (Roy Vickery 1995))
As I mention in my original piece, groundsel is munched upon by many, many caterpillars, so here is a poem by Julian Bishop. I love the idea of the caterpillar’s world view being reconfigured. See what you think.
The weeks play out in peaks and troughs
charted by the parabola of his back –
he meanders from one room to another,
all wreathed in the same leafy wallpaper.
Every morsel of groundsel is a Groundhog Day –
there’s no furlough for a hungry caterpillar.
He knows an airborne killer hovers over
his world of constant foraging, a beak
swooping out from behind the green curtain.
Nonchalant about the hair-raising danger,
other caterpillars give him sage advice:
Bruv, it’ll get you one way or another.
One day his restricted life will be lifted
by the gods gifting him a pair of wings.
From the cockpit of his modified body,
he will gaze down goggle-eyed on a land
reconfigured, where for a few precious weeks
heaven was a place of herbal teas, perpetual eating,
garden meals the boundaries of liberation.
Where will his new-found freedom take him?
And now, back to 2014 when I wrote this original piece.
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.