Ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris, syn. Senecio jacobaea)

Ragwort Plant

Common Names: St. James-wort, common ragwort, benweed, mare’s fart, tansy ragwort, ragweed, stinking willie, stinking nanny, dog standard, staggerwort, stammerwort, cankerwort.

Ragwort is a 40-80 cm tall, biennial belonging to the daisy family (Asteraceae). Under certain circumstances, including damage to the base of the plant, can make Ragowrt behave like a perennial (living indefinitely) as new rosettes are formed.

In the first year the leaves grow in a rosette close to the ground.

Ragwort Leaf Rossette
Ragwort Leaf Rossette.

The green leaves are pinnately lobed, the lobes getting bigger towards the end of the leaf and have a rather unpleasant smell, which explains some of the plant’s English common names like stinking Willie, stinking nanny and mare’s fart.

The plant has thick roots, erect, stiff and tough stems which are highly branched, growing upwards in the second year. Hermaphrodite bright yellow flower heads form dense, flat-topped clusters in its second year of growth. Ragwort keeps flowering from June to November. When the seeds have been produced the plant dies.

Ragwort Flowers
Ragwort Flowers.

The plants thrive best in dry and rather nutrient-poor soil and can usually be found in cultivated fields, grazing pastures, along ditches and roadsides.

There is the potential to confuse Ragwort with Tansy, (Tanacetum vulgare), but the leaves are generally more ragged.

Due to its horrible taste, there are few reported poisonings in humans, cattle and horses will also avoid it for the same reason, however the problem is when Ragwort is mixed in with hay, as in a dry state, animals can’t recognise it. For this reason it is covered by the Weeds Act 1959 (which specifies five injurious weeds including common ragwort) and the Ragwort Control Act 2003.

The leaves can be used to produce a green dye, the flowers, a yellow dye.

Ragwort did have some medicinal uses:

  • Externally as an ointment (mixed with pig fat) for relieving pain in the arms, hips, and legs.
  • A poultice made from the plant was laid on the throat, to treat throat inflammation in humans and in horses. Or it was infused in water and used as a gargle.
  • It was also used in the past to relieve pain related to sciatica, rheumatism, arthritis and gout.
  • Until recently, the essential oil extracted from ragwort was used internally as an herbal remedy for coughs and colds.

On this occassion maybe just stick to the more tried, tested and safer plant remedies.

At this time of year (summer) they are also often given away by the yellow and black striped cinnabar moth caterpillar that is usually crawling all over them devouring the leaves.

Caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth
Caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth.
Cinnabar Moth
Cinnabar Moth.

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