Plant mired in controversy

Ragwort, with a striking cinnabar moth caterpillar.
Ragwort, with a striking cinnabar moth caterpillar.

On roadside verges and waste ground, tall daisy-like flowers are shining like suns. These are the flowers of ragwort, a wild plant that’s mired in controversy.

While the yellow flowers are cheery, farmers and horse owners hate ragwort because it is lethal when eaten by their animals. For this reason, great efforts are made to eradicate the plant from pasture.

When crushed, ragwort releases a strong, bitter smell

Yet ragwort has its supporters. It’s a native plant, a source of nectar and the main food plant for the caterpillar of the cinnabar moth, whose numbers have declined by 83% in the last 35 years. The striking black and yellow caterpillar munches the leaves and ingests the toxin, rendering itself poisonous to anything that fancies eating it. Unfortunately ragwort that grows in the wild, so to speak, can easily seed itself into fields used by cattle and horses.

When crushed, ragwort releases a strong, bitter smell. Our forebears used it to colour cloth — perhaps that’s how it got its name. The plant yields dyes of bronze, green and orange, and its stems are tough enough to make baskets and ropes. In folk medicine, ragwort poultices were applied to boils, cuts, sores and ulcers to combat infection.

In August peacock butterflies are about, displaying their dark wings with the eerie eyespots. These are the offspring of those peacocks that hibernated during the winter, and emerged to lay their eggs on nettles in the spring. Alas, rain intervened in the process, so there are not so many this year.

In woods, gardens and parks rowans are flaunting bunches of shiny, scarlet berries, a favourite treat for blackbirds and thrushes. Our native rowan — also known as mountain ash, whitty, wiggen, whittern, or quickbeam — is credited with magical powers, especially the red berries that were thought to ward off evil. A bundle of its twigs hung over the bed guaranteed a peaceful night, free from nightmares.

While the rowan’s bright berries are the most obvious sign of autumn’s approach, there is another. In the early mornings swallows gather in groups on the telephone wires — the youngsters are easy to distinguish as their tails lack the adult birds’ long streamers. The swallows preen and twitter excitedly until suddenly, they’re off, diving and swooping. It’s a rehearsal for the day they will set off for Africa.

Last fling

As summer ends we hope for a last golden flourish, a warm and sunny Bank Holiday. This one used to fall on the first Monday in August until a run of washouts suggested that the day was doomed, meteorologically speaking. Let’s move it to the end of the month, it’s always fine then, someone said.

Since then strong winds, fog, thunderstorms, and deluges have blighted many Late Summer Bank Holidays. Let’s hope nothing like that happens this year, especially as the weather tends to carry over into September.

When August bows out with a smile, September can be very pleasant. “Fair on September 1, fair for the month,” says the old lore, while there’s often a quiet period from the 1st to the 17th. So look forward — with crossed fingers — to a pleasant week or two.