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Arrival of the ground-swallower

PUBLISHED: 08:46 20 November 2017

Nature writer Grace Corne.

Nature writer Grace Corne.

copyright of Archant 2009; 01603 772434

Nature: Grace Corne looks at the life and lore of sticky groundsel, Senecio viscosus.

My husband, when walking past a nearby house, found the owner with a puzzled expression and a plant in his hand. It seems he had been constructing a new garden and had imported a load of topsoil. The soil had been spread but now it was covered in numerous rosettes of this little plant, enough in fact to worry him. Needless to say the plant came home for further investigation and I was quite surprised to see it because although it is by no means rare it has not been regularly found in this area.

The plant in question was sticky groundsel, Senecio viscosus, and was small enough to be easily missed. However it is a different story when it is in the hand as the leaves are perhaps clammy rather than sticky and the plant has an unpleasant smell which is so strong it really irritates the nose.

Fortunately or not this plant has unintentionally been imported to a situation which will suit it very well for it loves disturbed ground and soil which tends to be light and sandy. The sticky groundsel is not poisonous and I am sure stock would find it most unpleasant to eat, which is just as well as it is a close relative of ragwort.

The fact that the imported soil is now covered in many of these plants is not surprising. The name ‘groundsel’ is of Anglo-Saxon origin (grundeswilege) which translates as ‘ground swallower.’ The flowers are small and yellow, maturing into fluff-tipped seed heads, and the seeds are scattered by the wind.

In Norfolk it might be difficult to learn about groundsel from a local because it will almost certainly be better known there under the name ‘Sencion.’ A mid-sixteenth century author was responsible for this by saying that when all the seeds had blown away the seed-heads resembled the bald head of an old man. The Latin name for an old man was Senex from which the Senecio and later Senecion and Sencion were derived.

One word of warning. It is recommended that the common groundsel be given to cage birds. It is not advisable to feed them the sticky groundsel.

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