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Home Plant Lore Groundsel

Groundsel

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JANUARY 2012: GROUNDSEL (Senecio Vulgaris)

Groundsel Description and Habitat:: A very common plant throughout Europe and Russian Asia but not extending to the tropics, it is particularly abundant in Britain. It grows almost everywhere from the tops of walls to all kinds of rubbish and waste ground and in gardens. Groundsel has followed man wherever he settled, the seeds probably having mingled with the grain which the European takes with him to the foreign country.

Groundsel is an annual with the root consisting of numerous white fibres and an erect and branching, often purple stem between 6 inches to nearly 1 foot in height. The leaves are dull green with irregular, blunt-toothed or jagged lobes, not unlike the shape of oak leaves. The cylindrical yellow flowers, each about 1/4 inch long and 1/8 inch across, are in clusters and are succeeded by downy heads of seeds, each seed being crowned by little tufts of hairs by which they are freely dispersed by the winds. Groundsel is in flower all the year round and scatters an enormous amount of seed in its one season of growth, one plant if allowed to seed producing one million others in one year.

Groundsel, so well known as a troublesome weed, is connected in the minds of most of us with caged birds, and probably few people are aware that it has any other use except as a favourite food for the canary. And yet in former days, Groundsel was a popular herbal remedy, is still employed in some country districts and is still used by the modern herbalist.

Common Names: Grundy Swallow, Ground Glutton, Simson, Sention, Wattery Drums.

The name Groundsel is of old origin, being derived from the Anglo-Saxon groundeswelge, meaning literally, 'ground swallower,' referring to the rapid way the plant spreads. In Scotland and the north of England it is still in some localities called Grundy Swallow - only a slight corruption of the old form of the word - and is also there called Ground Glutton. In Norfolk it is often called Simson or Sention, which has by some been considered an abbreviation of 'Ascension Plant.' It seems more probable that 'Sention' is a corruption of the Latin, Senecio, derived from Senex (an old man), in reference to its downy head of seeds; 'the flower of this herb hath white hair and when the wind bloweth it away, then it appeareth like a bald-headed man.'

According to Linnaeus, goats and swine eat this common plant freely, cows being not partial to it and horses and sheep declining to touch it, but not only are caged birds fond of it, but its leaves and seeds afford food for many of our wild species. Groundsel, in common with many other common garden plants, such as Chickplant, Dandelion, Bindplant, Plantain, etc., may be freely given to rabbits. It is said that Groundsel will at times entice a rabbit to eat when all other food has been refused

Parts Used:The whole herb, collected in May, when the leaves are in the best condition and dried. The fresh plant is also used for the expression of the juice.

Medicinal Uses: It was formerly much used for poultices and considered good for sickness of the stomach. A weak infusion of the plant is now sometimes given as a simple and easy purgative, and a strong infusion as an emetic: Its wide use was because it causes no irritation or pain, or as Culpepper in his 1653 Herbal puts it:

'This herb is Venus's mistress piece and is as gallant and universal a medicine for all diseases coming of heat, in what part of the body soever they be, as the sun shines upon: it is very safe and friendly to the body of man, yet causes vomiting if the stomach be afflicted, if not, purging. It doth it with more gentleness than can be expected: it is moist and something cold withal, thereby causing expulsion and repressing the heat caused by the motion of the internal parts in purges and vomits. The herb preserved in a syrup, in a distilled water, or in an ointment, is a remedy in all hot diseases, and will do it: first, safely; secondly, speedily.'

'The decoction of the herb, saith Dioscorides (in around AD60), made with wine and drunk helpeth the pains in the stomach proceeding from choler (bile). The juice thereof taken in drink, or the decoction of it in ale gently performeth the same. It is good against the jaundice and falling sickness (epilepsy), and taken in wine expelleth the gravel from the reins and kindeys. It also helpeth the sciatica, colic, and pains of the belly. The people in Lincolnshire use this externally against pains and swelling, and as they affirm with great success. The juice of the herb, or as Dioscorides saith, the leaves and flowers, with some Frankinsense in powder, used in wounds of the body, nerves or sinews, help to heal them. The distilled water of the herb performeth well all the aforesaid cures, but especially for inflammation or watering of the eye, by reason of rheum into them.'

Gerard says in his 1597 Herbal, that 'the down of the flower mixed with vinegar' will also prove a good dressing for wounds, and recommends that when the juice is boiled in ale for the purpose of a purge, a little honey and vinegar be added, and that the efficacy is improved by the further addition of 'a few roots of Assarbace.' He states also that 'the leaves stamped and strained into milk and drunk helpeth the red gums and frets in children.'.

Another old herbalist tells us that the fresh roots smelled when first taken out of the ground are an immediate cure for many forms of headache. But the root must not be dug up with a tool that has any iron in its composition. Some of the old authorities claimed that Groundsel was especially good for wounds caused by being struck by iron.

Groundsel in an old-fashioned remedy for chapped hands. If boiling water be poured on the fresh plant, the liquid forms a pleasant swab for the skin and will remove roughness.

For gout, it was recommended to 'pound it with lard, lay it to the feet and it will alleviate the disorder.' A poultice of the leaves, applied to the pit of the stomach, is said to cause the same emetic effect as a dose of the strong infusion. A poultice made with salt is said to 'disperse knots and kernels in the flesh.'

Groundsel has also been used for rheumatism, sciatica, joint pains, lung ailments, dysentery, diarrhea, lumbago, wounds, bronchial asthma, constipation, ulcers, colic, intestinal problems, as a blood purifier and for high blood pressure, canker sores, chronic sores, toothache, coughs, and colds.

Additional Comments and Folklore: Groundsel has a strong correlation with Witches. A small patch of Groundsel growing by an old track was proof that a Witch has stopped there to urinate. Large patches meant a number of witches had stopped there to plot. Groundsel growing in the thatch of a roof showed that a witch had stopped there on a broomstick flight. It was believed that witches could never die in winter but only when Groundsel was in flower (it flowers all year!) Witches would carry a posy of Groundsel by which the Devil would identify them as his followers. Conversely, Groundsel was also used as a counter-charm against witchcraft and also as a charm to prevent witches stealing milk. Pieces of the root were used as amulets against the evil-eye!

Women also wore an amulet of Groundsel to prevent other women transferring the milk yield of the amulet – wearer’s cow to themselves!

Last Updated on Sunday, 12 February 2012 14:44  

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