Groundsel, Common

Medical Herbs Catalogue


Groundsel, Common

Botanical Name: Senecio vulgaris (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Compositae

Synonyms: (Scotch) Grundy Swallow, Ground Glutton.
(Norfolk) Simson, Sention.
Part Used: Whole herb.
Habitat: A very common weed throughout Europe and Russian Asia, not extending to the tropics. It is abundant in Britain, being found up to the height of I,600 feet in Northumberland. It grows almost everywhere, and is to be found as frequently on the tops of walls as among all kinds of rubbish and waste ground, but especially in gardens. Groundsel is one of those plants which follows civilized man wherever he settles, for there is hardly a European colony in the world in which it does not spring up upon the newly tilled land, the seeds probably having mingled with the grain which the European takes with him to the foreign country. Other home weeds, such as the thistle, have made their way across the seas in the same manner.

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 still forms an item in the stock of the modern herbalist, though it is not given a place in the British Pharmacopoeia.

The name Groundsel is of old origin, being derived from the Anglo-Saxon groundeswelge, meaning literally, 'ground swallower,' referring to the rapid way the weed 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.'

The genus Senecio, belonging to the large family Compositae, includes about 900 species, which are spread over all parts of the globe, but are found in greatest profusion in temperate regions. Nine are natives of this country. The essential character of the genus is an involucre (the enveloping outer leaves of the composite heads of flowers) consisting of a single series of scales of equal length. The florets of the flower-heads are either all tubular, or more commonly, the central tubular and the marginal strap-shaped. The prevailing colour of the flowers in this genus is yellow purple (white or blue being comparatively rare).

Description: It is an annual, the root consisting of numerous white fibres and the round or slightly angular stem, erect, 6 inches to nearly 1 foot in height, often branching at the top, is frequently purple in colour. It is juicy, not woody, and generally smooth, though sometimes bears a little loose, cottony wool. The leaves are oblong, wider and clasping at the base, a dull, deep green colour, much cut into (pinnatifid), with irregular, blunt-toothed or jagged lobes, not unlike the shape of oak leaves. The cylindrical flower-heads, each about 1/4 inch long and 1/8 inch across, are in close terminal clusters or corymbs, the florets yellow and all tubular; the scales surrounding the head and forming the involucre are narrow and black-tipped, with a few small scales at their base. The flowers are succeeded by downy heads of seeds, each seed being crowned by little tufts of hairs, by means of 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.

A variety of Senecio vulgaris, named S. radiata (Koch), with minute rays to the outer florets, is found in the Channel Islands.

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 weeds, such as Chickweed, Dandelion, Bindweed, 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. Rabbit-keeping is a very practical way of reducing the butcher's bill, and no means of feeding the rabbits economically should be neglected. Stores of both Groundsel and Chickweed might well be dried in the summer for giving to the rabbits in winter time with their hay.

Parts Used Medicinally: 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.

Constituents: Chemically, Groundsel contains senecin and seniocine. The juice isslightly acrid, but emollient.

Medicinal Action and Uses: Diaphoretic, antiscorbutic, purgative, diuretic, anthelmintic. It was formerly much used for poultices and reckoned 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: it causes no irritation or pain, removes bilious trouble and is a great cooler, or as Culpepper 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, 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 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 'it helpeth the King's Evil, and 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 such wounds as had been 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.'

In this country, farriers give Groundsel to horses as a cure for bot-worms, and in Germany it is said to be employed as a popular vermifuge for children.

A drachm of the juice is sufficient to take, internally.


GROUNDSEL, GOLDEN Botanical Name: Senecio aureus (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Compositae

Synonyms: Life Root. Squaw Weed. Golden Senecio.
Part Used: Herb.

Senecio aureus, Golden Groundsel, an American species, native of Virginia and Canada, is considered a most useful plant, deserving of attention. The root and whole herb are employed medicinally for their emmenagogue, diuretic, pectoral, and astringent qualities. It has often been used in the first stage of consumption for the beneficial effects of its tonic properties, combined with its pectoral qualities, 1 teaspoonful of the fluid extract prepared from it being taken in water or combined with other pectorals. It is also of value in gravel, stone, diarrhoea, etc. The plant has slender, fluted, unbranched and cottony stems, 1 to 2 feet high. The rhizome is perennial, 1 to 2 inches long, the bark of the roots hard and blackish. The root-leaves are roundish and kidney-shaped, up to 6 inches long, on long leaf-stalks. The stem leaves decrease in size as they grow up the stem, and are cut into as far as the midrib, the upper ones being stalkless. The flower-heads are few in number, loosely arranged at the summit of the stem, the flowers two-thirds to nearly an inch broad, of a golden yellow, with the outer ray florets slightly reflexed. The plant has only a slight odour, but a bitter, astringent, slightly acrid taste.

Preparations: Senecin, 1 to 3 grains. Powdered root, 1/2 to 1 drachm. Fluid extract, 1/2 to 1 drachm. Solid extract, 5 to 10 grains.

GROUNDSEL, HOARY Botanical Name: Senecio erucifolius (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Compositae
Senecio erucifolius, the Hoary Groundsel, which has similar properties to S. vulgaris, has been employed in poultices, ointments and plasters. It is a perennial, distributed over Europe and Siberia, growing not infrequently here on dry banks and by roadsides in limestone or chalky districts from Berwick southwards, but rarely in Ireland. It is a tall plant, in growth similar to S. Jacobae, but sending up several stems from its shortly creeping root. The whole plant is cottony, or softly hairy, with curled hairs, especially on the upper surfaces of the leaves, which have much narrower, regularly divided segments, slightly rolled back at theedges. The flower-heads are larger. It flowers from July to August.

All forms of this genus are not of such beneficial use, and one at least has lately been found to be distinctly harmful, for Molteno disease, a cattle and horse disease prevalent in certain parts of South Africa, has been definitely traced to the presence of a poisonous alkaloid in a plant eaten by the animals, this plant being Senecio latifolius, a near relative of the Common Groundsel of this country.

SENECIO MARITIMA Botanical Name: Cineraria maritima (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Compositae
Senecio maritima, sometimes looked on as a variety of S. campestris (D.C.), and known by Linnaeus as Cineraria maritima, is found on maritime rocks at Holyhead. It is a shrubby plant, divided into many branches, which have a white, downy covering of hairs. The flowers bloom from June to August, and are about 3/8 inches across, arranged in a similar manner to Ragwort. The leaves are 5 to 8 inches long and about 2 to 2 1/4 inches wide, the segments broadly-toothed, about three-lobed and with soft hairs, which form a dense white covering. One or two drops of the fresh juice of the plant dropped into the eye is said to be of use in removing cataract.

GROUNDSEL, MOUNTAIN Botanical Name: Senecio sylvaticus
Family: N.O. Compositae
Senecio sylvatica, Mountain Groundsel, is distinguished from Common Groundsel by its larger size, being 1 to 2 feet high, and by its having conical, rather than cylindrical heads of dull yellow flowers, with a few rays rolled back and often wanting. The stems are branched and the leaves pinnatifid, with narrower lobes, toothed. It is an annual, grows common on gravelly soil, on dry heaths and commons, growing in the Highlands up to 1,000 feet above sea-level and flowers from July to September. It has a somewhat unpleasant odour, and detergent and antiscorbutic properties.

(Senecio viscosus)
Click on graphic for larger image GROUNDSEL, VISCID Botanical Name: Senecio viscosus
Family: N.O. Compositae
Synonym: Stinking Groundsel.

Senecio viscosus, Viscid Groundsel, is near the last-named species in habit, though its erect stem is not so tall, and it is distinguished by being clothed with viscid down, causing the leaves, which are finely cut into, to be thick and clammy to the touch and lighter in colour. The flower heads are less numerous, with the outer bracts of the involucre about half as long as the inner, and the flowers pale. It grows in similar situations, mostly on dry ditch banks and wastedry ground, from Forfar downwards, but is more local than S. sylvaticus, and is rare in Ireland. It, also, is an annual, flowering from July to September, and has a foetid odour, obtaining for it the popular name of Stinking Groundsel. The leaves are carminative: its emetic properties are slightly less than those of S. vulgaris.