Ragwort – dispelling the myths

Ragwort – Senecio jacobaea is a contentious topic I’ve noticed recently. When ever a photo is posted for identification on different Facebook groups I am following, the comments show a big divide of opinion and the same myths are often used in arguing for its eradication.

For those of you who are unaware of this native plant from the asteraceae family , ragwort is often known for its toxicity to horses and cattle. Some people believe that its toxicity is to be feared and that just by touching it the plant can cause liver failure and so must be removed at all costs – and there has been plenty of media hype to continue this prejudice. However, whilst it is potentially harmful to horses, it also has plenty of benefits to wildlife.

I want to write this because when we moved in last year and the garden was overgrown, there were quite a few ragwort plants in flower around the garden and my first instinct was to go around and pull it all up. I’m glad I didn’t and that I looked into it a little bit, because I later discovered a plant with a few caterpillars of the day-flying cinnabar moth Tyria jacobaeae happily munching away at the leaves. These beautifully distinct larvae with their stripy bodies rely on ragwort as a food plant and without it these critters can not complete their life cycle. Because of the control of ragwort a decline in the numbers of cinnabar moths has been noticed.

Ragwort is also an excellent nectar source for pollinators; bees, butterflies and hoverflies in particular. We had gatekeepers Pyronia tithonus visiting our plants last year which was a new butterfly for me and very exciting. Ragwort is thought to be essential to at least 30 invertebrates, so it really is in my opinion much more of a friend than a foe. This year, I have also planted marsh ragwort Senecio aquaticus around my pond because of how great it is for invertebrates.

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Ragwort control is only really necessary if it occurs in or around a field which is producing hay. This is because ragwort is harmful to horses and they are unable to detect the dried ragwort in hay and the toxicity of the plant remains. Ingestion of dried ragwort can lead to liver failure which is understandably a very good reason to avoid it – although how dangerous it really is is debated given the difficulty in identifying ragwort poisoning as a cause of death. It is also perhaps a good idea to remove it from any grazing paddocks ‘just in case’ even though horses tend to avoid it when it is fresh. We remove it at work when the sheep graze just as a precaution, although I’ve noticed a few plants after they have arrived and the sheep have seemed to avoid them too. It is also worth noting that there is no legislation requiring the removal of ragwort as is often believed. If ragwort is causing a problem then there are powers for an order for removal to be made through the Weeds act 1959, but an order has to be made for this to be enforced.

Ragwort will not harm humans unless perhaps you eat a lot of it. I’ve pulled it up with my bare hands many times with no adverse effects. There is of course the chance that you may be more sensitive to it and for every ten people who are okay with it, there will be one who developed a rash I’m sure.

If you would like to find out more about the truth of ragwort then there is lots of information about it on the internet such as here, here and here. In the meantime, if you find any growing in your garden let it grow and keep an eye out for the cinnabar moth!

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

Hampton Court Flower Show 2015

I woke up on Thursday with that giddy ‘going on holiday’ feeling in my stomach. But I wasn’t heading off on a jet plane, instead I was driving down the road to Hampton Court Flower Show with my partner’s mother. We arrived without any traffic hassles which was a surprise and after negotiating the pushchair over the pedestrian footbridge and following the meandering crowd (mostly comprised of people of the ‘older’ generation) we arrived at the show. One thing that caught my eye on the way in were the magnificent sculpted trees which made me feel I had walked in to a Lewis Caroll novel.

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The show, celebrating it’s 25th year was relatively busy and bustling with people pulling cartloads of plants and drinking pimms. Managing the heat, the crowds and a somewhat restless and curious baby was a bit of a challenge. However we still made it around and brought a few treats home with us!

All the gardens were absolutely stunning, with the exception of Simon Webster’s garden ‘Ready…Aim…Flower!’ which to me just didn’t quite move past the sheer oddness of it. I noticed that many of the gardens had incorporated elements of wildflowers which I really liked to see. I love the wildflower look, it’s slightly scruffy, mixed with delicate floral displays and can be tailored to suit almost any situation, whilst still attracting an array of pollinators.

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I particularly liked the colour scheme exhibited in the Macmillan Legacy Garden which won a gold award. The muted oranges and peaches of the flowers to me looked liked the plants had a vintage Instagram filter over them and worked really well. This inspired me to buy some flowers this colour from the show for my own garden at home.

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Bu my favourite garden of all was the Community Street Garden With it’s mixture of attractive borders, creative vegetable planting, green roofs and homes for wildlife. It worked very well as an example of sustainable urban gardening.

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Here are a few more highlights of the show.

Where it all began

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It began in Barnes…leafy, lovely Barnes. We were renting the cottage above, and beside a small patch of grass with a narrow flowerbed border and a rear ‘courtyard garden’ (estate agent speak for small concreted square), what you can see is pretty much what we had to work with. I loved it. It was mine and I nurtured it every day, almost.

After 18 months the landlady wanted her house back and we were evicted mid tenancy. I had spent a fair amount of money during that time getting carried away at the garden centre filling the small garden with plants, bulbs and furniture in every little bare patch I could. It flowered throughout the seasons and provided homes for birds, insects and bees, even being visited by stag beetles!

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Leaving almost all of it behind was pretty devastating. There are wildflowers probably blooming right now which I never got to see in their full glory. I Brought some plants with me – but many I didn’t. I bet the hops (Humulus lupus) last year were fantastic.

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In June 2014 we moved. We moved to Croydon.

What we lost in boutique coffee shops, good pubs, farmer’s markets and expensive shops we could never afford to go in, we gained through much cheaper garden centres and this…

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When we moved in the grass was waist height – a meadow teaming with butterflies. The patio was also a meadow as the cracks burst with plants. With the grass too tall for a flymo, we ordered a petrol strimmer and got to work. Uncovering the garden was both exhausting and exciting. I was pregnant at the time so my boyfriend did a lot of the hard graft, but I didn’t get away too easily!

This blog will document the transformation of the garden as well as all things garden related. Why not read all about the pond in the post here.