Botanical name Jacobaea vulgaris

Ragwort in flower

Genus named after biblical patriarch Jacob. Vulgaris is Latin for common.
Ragwort from “ragged leaves”. Wort from old English “wyrt” meaning “plant, root or herb”. The suffix “wort” was usually given to plants considered beneficial.

Few plants can divide opinion like “Ragwort”. 

In my previous life as a large animal vet, “Ragwort” was a problem plant that I hated. It’s high alkaloid content often made it highly poisonous. Early experiences of chronic ragwort poisoning in cattle, when I saw them fade away over weeks when eating hay containing Ragwort, were nothing compared to acute Ragwort poisoning in horses. Ragwort grows well in arid conditions. A long hot summer can leave paddocks very short of grass, but rich in green ragwort if not managed properly. One working summer, I witnessed a majestic young shire die of liver failure only 4 days after being turned out into such a paddock. The sudden, needless loss of such a beautiful creature still haunts me.

The “Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs”, can legally impose fines on landowners who do not attempt to prevent the spread of “Ragwort”, in places where livestock could possibly be affected. I have, in the past, wondered how so many land owners, including councils, escape these fines.

 Surprisingly, for such a deadly plant, it has had a variety of uses in herbal medicine. The leaves make a good poultice. When applied to painful joints, for example sufferers of gout, the poultice reduces swelling and inflammation. Although the plant tastes bitter and aromatic (I suggest that you do not try this at home!), the “juice” is cooling and astringent. This, apparently makes it useful to wash burns, inflamed eyes, sores and cancerous ulcers, hence one of it’s other names, “Cankerwort”. It makes a good gargle for ulcerated throats and mouths, and can take away the pain of a bee sting. Boiling the root produces a liquid good for deep bruising and wounds. One of it’s names is “Stammerwort”, as it was used as a remedy for speech impediments. 

Other names for “Ragwort” include “Mare’s Fart”, “Stinking Willie”, “Dog Standard” and “Staggerwort”. The last name intrigues me. The plant was apparently used in the past, to treat “staggers in horses”. Tell that one to my lost friend, the Shire! 

Ragwort and cinnabar moth caterpillar
Ragwort and cinnabar moth caterpillar

“Ragwort” is rich in nectar and great for insects, especially when many flowers are fading in dry conditions of a hot summer.

If you are lucky, you may spot caterpillars of the “Cinnabar” moth eating Ragwort leaves. The caterpillars are striped yellow and black, and become poisonous as they eat the alkaloids in Ragwort leaves. The intensity of their stripes become more obvious, the more Ragwort is eaten, and this serves as a warning to potential predators. When the adult emerges from the pupa, the hind wings are a stunning red, hence the name “Cinnabar”, a bright red mercury sulphide mineral used in the past by artists. Red is another warning colour in nature, as these adult moths retain the poison from the “Ragwort” leaves. Interestingly, the mercury mineral “Cinnabar” is deadly, making the moth aptly named. 

So, a plant that can be extremely poisonous to cattle and horses, and can support the lives of a poisonous moth named after a deadly mineral, can also be used as a gargle, and a cure for speech impediments. Personally, I shall continue to visit my local chemist, and stammer out the word “Listerine”! 

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