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David Watson Hood, visual artist.
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Ragwort: Senecio jacobaea L. Benweed, Buaghallan, Common Ragwort, Curly doddies, Ragwort (Common), Staggerwort, Stinking Davie, Stinking Willie, St James Wort, Tansy (locally in northeast should not be confused with the edible/medicinal plant of the same name Tanacetum vulgare), Wee-bo, Weebie.


Ragwort: Senecio jacobaea L.Classed by law as a noxious weed (land holders have a legal obligation to control it), because of the numbers of livestock killed by it. Sheep and goats seem to consume a fair amount with some immunity but horses and cattle are said to be often harmed particularly when the plant is dried in hay/silage as they do not readily eat it fresh. All parts of the plant are poisonous. The plant contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, in isolation these substances are highly toxic to the liver and have a cumulative affect even when the whole plant is consumed.

Ragwort is a good food plant for the caterpillars of many butterfly and moth species, and is one of only two species that provide food for cinnabar moth caterpillars. Destroy this plant all we like there is likely to still be quite a bit of it so the attitude of DEFRA (that some native species are more equal than others when it comes to biodiversity) is not too worrying, at least in this case.

Throughout Scotland there was a belief that witches and fairies travelled on ragwort stalks: 'Tell how wi' you on ragweed nags, They skim the moors and dizzy crags [Robert burns, Address to the Deil, verse 9, 1785]

After a man had finished the harvesting in some parts of the Highlands, rivalry with his neighbours would lead him to take the last sheaf of corn cut from his field and make a small effigy of a Cailleach (old woman). This was then dressed in docken and ragwort and given to neighbours who had not yet finished taking in the harvest. It was thought that this represented an invisible hag who would drain the slower reaper’s resources over the coming winter. This obviously created a lot of tension amongst rival crofters, and bloodshed was not unknown at the bestowal of this corn dolly on a neighbour.

Non-medical uses of ragwort
A good green dye is obtained from the leaves, though it is not very permanent. A yellow dye is obtained from the flowers when alum is used as a mordant. Brown and orange can also be obtained.
In the Hebrides it was once used for creel making but only because of a lack of better plants also valued as a way to keep mice off stored grain.

Medicinal uses of ragwort
Astringent, Diaphoretic, Diuretic, Emmenagogue, Expectorant, Homeopathy.
Definitons of medical actions

The plant is harvested as it comes into flower and is dried for later use. Use with caution, when applied internally it can cause severe damage to the liver. See also the notes above on toxicity. An emollient poultice is made from the leaves. The juice of the plant is cooling and astringent, it is used as a wash in burns, sores, cancerous ulcers and eye inflammations. It makes a gargle for ulcerated mouths and throats and is also said to take away the pain of a bee sting. Caution is advised here since the plant is poisonous and some people develop a rash from merely touching this plant. A decoction of the root is said to be good for treating internal bruises and wounds. A homeopathic remedy is made from the plant. It is used in the treatment of dysmenorrhoea and other female complaints, internal haemorrhages.

Sources:
Carmichael, A. (1997 reprint). Carmina Gadelica: Hymns & incantations collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the Last century. Floris Books, Edinburgh.
Plants For A Future, www.pfaf.org/index.html,

Flora Celtica, www.floraceltica.com/, Flora Celtica is an international project based at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, documenting and promoting the knowledge and sustainable use of native plants in the Celtic countries and regions of Europe.

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