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---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.