Last week we were doing some maintenance on our land, what will later become our garden. The grass, nettles and wild flowers had taken over again, so it was high time to do some cutting. To my delight I noticed there were quite a lot of beautiful yellow flowers occupying the slope in the back, especially on spots where we removed a path and disturbed the land. Some orange-black striped caterpillars seemed to love them in particular. Once home I looked up what they were and alarm bells started ringing. This was undoubtedly Ragwort, the highly poisonous horse and cattle killer they warn you about on the internet.
So now the dilemma was, cut it all down and remove it, or leave it as it is. Is this Ragwort the dangerous serial killer they say it is ? As often the case, the answer is somewhere in the middle and many myths took over the facts. Let’s have a closer look to some of the facts.
Is it poisonous ? Well, it surely contains a high doses of Alkaloids, which can be found in about 3% of plants in the world. The thing with these alkaloids is that they only get poisonous by eating them. The breakdown of the alkaloids in the liver leaves toxic products, damaging the liver. We, humans, will not be likely eating these plants, but for horses and cattle this might be a problem. Horses and cattle will never eat them when they are alive and it only becomes a problem when they are mixed in the hay they eat.
Scientific studies show that a horse should eat 5 to 25% of its bodyweight before it becomes lethal. A very interesting site on this matter is http://www.ragwortfacts.com , which goal is to inform people about ragwort based on true scientific facts. Some people might get a bit of an allergy when touching the plants, but this is the case with many plants.
Although I was already a bit more at ease about ragwort on our land, I decided to also ask some advice from the people of Velt. Velt is the Flemish and Dutch organization to promote organic gardening and ecological living. Quite fast I got an answer and they didn’t see a problem as long as I didn’t keep animals on the land. They will probably disappear by itself after a while, when we start planting fruit trees and start more maintenance.
I also would like to come back on the caterpillars I found on the Ragwort plants. The orange/black creatures will later become the quite attractive Cinnabar Moth. A Black butterfly with some red stripes. They only feed on Ragwort and the poison protects them from getting eaten. Even when they are in butterfly stage the poison is still there to protect them, hence the bright red warning stripes on their wings.
Conclusion : Our Suspect, Mr. Ragwort is less of a threat than he is accused off. Some precautions should be taken in account when it is growing near grazing grounds for cattle and horses and it should be avoided to end up in their food. But for now, Mr Ragwort can stay and provide nectar for the bees, food for the caterpillar of the cinnabar moth and a touch of color in the future garden.