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Ragwort a Cause for Concern

Updated on August 7, 2015


RAGWORT-in open woodland
RAGWORT-in open woodland | Source
Components of the common ragwort.
Components of the common ragwort.

Notes from a Lancashire Countryman

The Common Ragwort, Senecio jacobaeae, is a native plant that may be encountered in grassland, open woodland, waste places, roadsides , pastures and even on walls. it is another member of the large Asteraceae, family of flowering plants.

The genus name of Senecio derives from Latin and alludes to "old man" referring to the white plume s that carry the seed away from the parent plant in a parachute fashion, a common distribution method of this family.

The common ragwort varies in height from 60-150cm depending on the growing conditions. The hairless stem is furrowed and branched, upon which are irregularly divided foliage which take on a ragged appearance and gives rise to the plants common name -a "ragged herb". The basal leaves are much larger and broader than the stem leaves which are often cut into lobes right to the midrib..

The 'raggy' leaves of the plant

Close up of ragwort foliage
Close up of ragwort foliage | Source

Daisy like yellow flowers

The daisy-like yellow flowers are arranged in relatively large flat topped clusters that botanists term as corymbs.. The clusters are branched towards the summit where the bright yellow flowers are situated. the flowers are one to one and a half centimetres wide with 12-20 ray florets. beneath the florets are bracts that are coloured black and the tips.

Bright yellow flowers

The bright yellow flowers of the ragwort.
The bright yellow flowers of the ragwort. | Source

A Plethora of seeds

A single plant may produce up to 30,000 seeds that have a 70% germination success.

Concern arises when these plants become the dominant species in pastures and other grazing land. This species is poisonous to grazing animals and especially to horses. The toxins build up over a period of time before causing irreparable damage to the animals liver. A horse suffering from ragwort poisoning becomes a distressing sight. The symptoms can include weight loss, vomiting, and disorientation. They can become blind. All parts of the ragwort remain poisonous even after they have been cut down.

Grazing horses--

Grazing horses are particularly prone to ragwort poisoning.
Grazing horses are particularly prone to ragwort poisoning. | Source

Weeds Act

Ragwort is named in the Weeds Act 1959. This Act names five injurious weeds, they are the common ragwort,spear thistle, creeping thistle, broad leaved dock and the curled dock. Japanese knotweed, Himalayan balsam and Giant hogweed are dealt with under Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Under the Weed Act the Secretary of State may serve an enforcement notice on the occupier of the land on which injurious weeds are growing, requiring the occupier to prevent the spread of injurious weeds.

Top.Broad leaved dock. Bottom-Creeping thistle

Broad leaved dock and the creeping thistle below appear in the Weed Act 1959
Broad leaved dock and the creeping thistle below appear in the Weed Act 1959 | Source

Ragwort and horses

As previously stated the ragwort is poisonous to horses and other livestock with potentially fatal consequences if ingested even in a dried state. Over 90% of complaints that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs { D.E.F.R.A.}, receives about injurious weeds concern ragwort. In 2003 this concern gave rise to the British Horse Society sponsoring a Private Members Bill to amend the Weeds Act, to provide a a code of practice to prevent the spread of ragwort.

The government supported the Bill and the Ragwort Control Act was formed. It came into force in 2004. Further guidance was published in September 2005 Giving guidance and options for the control and disposal of the plant. Ragwort is the only one of the five named in the Weed Act that is detrimental to animal health. A code of practice for any land owner who has grazing land affected by ragwort, is available on the D.E.F.R.A. website.

Away from grazing land the ragwort is an important part of the eco-system. A recent survey suggests that there has been no significant increase in ragwort over the last 30 years. { however, there may be fluctuations at local level}, ragwort is the host plant to many creatures such as leaf beetles and micro moths for nectar and as a larval food source. The most noticeable of these and the one most likely to be encountered is the caterpillar of the cinnabar moth. These orange and black caterpillars are capable of stripping the foliage bare. They eat the plant with seeming impunity . Nature has decreed that the build up of toxins in the caterpillar will be sufficient defense for the caterpillar from being eaten by birds.

king . caterpillars on Ragwort. Below Moth drinking from Ragwort flower.

The conspicuous caterpillars of the cinnabar moth eat the plant with seeming impunity.
The conspicuous caterpillars of the cinnabar moth eat the plant with seeming impunity. | Source
Other species of moth take nectar from ragwort flowers
Other species of moth take nectar from ragwort flowers | Source

Medicinal uses

The plant has been used medicinally in the form of poultices. The whole plant is bitter and acrid. The juice is said to be of a cooling and astringent nature. Thus the juices were employed as a wash for burns and sores. it was much used to wash cancerous ulcers, which gave rise to the country title of cankerwort. Poultices were used to alleviate painful joint pains arising from gout or rheumatism.

Another species of ragwort The Oxford Ragwort ragwort, Senecio squalidis, is beginning to expand its range in Britain. It is an introduced annual or short lived perennial which tenants waste ground, walls, and waysides. It escaped over the wall of the Oxford Botanical Gardens in 1794 and is now common throughout England and Wales.

This species has a long flowering period and may be encountered in flower from March until December. It prefers dry waste ground, walls, and railway embankments and thus is more common in the east of the country where dryer conditions prevail.

The flowers of this species are of a lemon colour formed in loose irregular clusters. The double row of bracts beneath the flowers are conspicuously tipped black.

Oxford ragwort

Oxford ragwort has a much longer flowering period than the common species.
Oxford ragwort has a much longer flowering period than the common species.

Other species of ragwort

There are other species of ragwort that occur in the U.K. but these are much more specialised in habitat and are often constricted to certain regions of the country. These include the March ragwort, a plant of marshes, river banks and ditches.

Hoary ragwort which is similar to the common ragwort, however, this plant is covered in hairs which give it a grey-green appearance.the foliage is divided into narrow pointed lobes. it is found on dry rough grassland, on clay or lime rich soils. They flower form August until October.

The fen ragwort is confined to Cambridgeshire in the south of England.

Broad leaved ragwort, is locally naturalised in fens and wet woodlands.

Close relatives of the ragworts are the groundsels which will be the subject of my next hub.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      pinguicula, thank you for taking the time to read and for leaving your knowledgeable comments. In this article I mentioned its toxic affect on horses as an illustration of why it has become a subject of The Ragwort control Act 2003. Your observations are indeed correct. You are also correct that wide spread use of herbicides endangers without discrimination many scarce and threatened species. Thank you again for your visit and for leaving your constructive comments.Best wishes to you.

      thepoisongarden, thank you for your visit, indeed it is good advise that horse owners should make sure their hay as come from a ragwort free field. Best wishes to you.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      The single most important thing about ragwort is that horse owners must be careful about where they buy hay. They must be sure that the seller can guarantee that the field was ragwort free.

      pinguicula is right about the taste. I've tried it and it is extremely sour. As long as there is something else to eat animals ignore living ragowrt.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      This article contains some useful information, but it doesn't give a complete picture. Here are a few more facts:

      1) Over-grazing is the main factor that causes ragwort to become dominant in pastures.

      2) Living ragwort has a pungent smell, which makes it distasteful to many grazing animals. Livestock are more likely to consume living ragwort when there is a shortage of more palatable foods.

      3) The plant is most dangerous to livestock when it has been cut or pulled, because it loses the pungent smell whilst retaining its toxicity. The debris from cutting and pulling should therefore be removed to a safe distance from grazing animals.

      4) Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea or Jacobaea vulgaris) can easily be confused with scarce and endangered species, such as goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea).

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Hi darski, thank you for reading . Although poisonous to grazing animals it is part of the the wider ecosystem and away from grazing land adds to the biodiversity. However, you are so right about horse owners who have to be very careful where this plant grows. Best wishes to you and yours.

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 

      8 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      What a most important and excellent hub. I cannot tolerate anything that could hurt our animals, we are their stewarts and must protect. A plan must be hatched to rid this poisonous plant. Thank you for sharing is hub and a must read for everyone...I rate this up up darski

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      lillyGrillzit, thank you for being the first to comment it is appreciated. You are welcome. best wishes to you.

    • LillyGrillzit profile image

      Lori J Latimer 

      8 years ago from The River Valley, Arkansas

      Thank you for sharing this important information. The best to you.


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