Amid the palette of autumn colours now adorning the landscape, a yellow, daisy-like plant stands out. Ragwort, even though a banned weed that can kill if ingested by cattle or horses, is to be seen on farmland, abandoned plots in urban areas, and roadsides countrywide.
Years ago, the sight of a garda on a bicycle in a rural area often prompted farmers to take action to remove the weed, known as buachallan in Irish. However, responsibility for prosecuting people has for long been in the hands of the Department of Agriculture and, judging by the weed’s ubiquity, there are few signs of enforcement.
Perhaps it’s due to the warm weather we’ve been enjoying, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much ragwort.
Each plant can have hundreds of flowers, producing thousands of seeds, which can be blown and spread by the wind. Farmers point out that ragwort can take root in their land in this way.
It could be argued that local councils are responsible for removing it from road verges, but there’s little or no action there. Like litter-picking nowadays, do local authorities also expect volunteers to go around removing ragwort?
Horses and cattle tend to avoid ragwort when grazing, but the problem is it can end up dried-out, and almost invisible, in hay. When consumed, the poison affects an animal’s liver and can result in painful death.
Some farmers pull ragwort from the root at this time of year, or early summer, and burn it.
But it is difficult to eradicate completely and it can appear year after year in the same places. The expert advice is not to cut ragwort, as, like Japanese knotweed, that only encourages regrowth. Weed killer can be used. The upside of ragwort is that it is important to pollinators, such as bees and a variety of insects that feed on pollen and nectar.
Whatever about being a poisonous plant, ragwort has been used as a homespun cure for eye inflammations, bee stings, wounds and cuts; even to treat horse ailments.
In the 1930s folk collection at University College Dublin, there’s a note from Co Cork, which details some of ragwort’s medicinal uses. The leaves were cut up and boiled for an hour. Butter and pig’s lard were added, the concoction was ‘boiled thick’, and then applied as a poultice.
In the folk tradition, we’re told the fairies used to ride around on ragwort as if it were a horse, especially at Halloween.
Since Victorian times, ragwort has, unusually, been adopted as the national flower of the Isle of Man, where it is known as cushag. Under Manx law, however, farmers there are obliged to keep their land ragwort-free.