Saturday, 23 August 2008

Stinking Willie

Over recent weeks the blocks of forest clearfell have been carpeted with the bright golden yellow of ragwort, not just a few plants scattered here and there, but many thousands of them. This striking spread of late summer colour, which practically glows against the backdrop of dark conifers, is a welcome sight for me, but for many landowners the ragwort is a far less welcome plant. Those who keep horses may spend many hours pulling this agricultural ‘weed’ from paddocks and pastures, hoping to spare their animals from the irreversible cirrhosis of the liver that comes from eating quantities of the plant. Interestingly, while horses and other grazing animals normally avoid eating the flowering stems, they will take it when it has died and dried out; presumably they are unable to identify the risk it poses once it has lost its characteristic colour. Curiously, sheep appear to be immune to its effects and may even relish it.

The general antipathy directed towards the ragwort can be seen in many of its local names, from ‘mare’s fart’ in Cheshire to ‘stinking Willie’ in Scotland. The latter name is a reference to the Duke of Cumberland, whose victory at the Battle of Cullodon Moor earned him the nickname of ‘butcher’. It is reported that ragwort was spread around by his troops during their campaign. Another local Scottish name for the plant is ‘wee-bo’, meaning ‘little devil’. It is clear from such names, and indeed from the reaction of friends and colleagues to the plant, that it is an unwelcome part of our arable flora. Yet, I have always associated ragwort with the cinnabar moth, whose striking black and yellow caterpillars feast upon its foliage.

Ragwort is known as ‘St. James’s herb’ in certain other countries and even here in Britain the same association has been made (through the alternative name of St. James’s wort’). This association may stem from the fact that the plant is in flower on St. James’s Day (25th July) or, alternatively, it may have something to do with the plant being used to treat the sores and ulcers which afflicted pilgrims visiting the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela (Spain). There are also references in old herbals of the plant being used as a treatment for gout, sciatica rheumatism – in each case the green leaves being used as a poultice. The ragwort has even become a national flower – the ‘cushag’ of the Isle of Man.

It is easy to dismiss the ragwort as a troublesome and unwanted neighbour. However, this ignores the long interplay between Man and plant, with the plant acting variously as weed, poisoner and healer. For me, such associations add to its fascination.

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