When it comes to garden weeds, most folks are focused solely on how to get rid of them or keep them away entirely. Rarely does it cross their mind that there might actually be reasons not to spray or pull as soon as a weed appears.
Common groundsel is a plant you might consider giving a pass to if it shows up in your garden. Despite its ragged appearance and weedy reputation, it has one positive feature if you own a pet bird!
Keep reading to learn about this invasive, scratchy, but slightly useful weed and how to deal with it.
Identifying the Common Groundsel
The Senecio vulgaris is an upright, branching weed in the Asteraceae (or daisy) family.
Though it’s a winter annual — or biennial because it also germinates in summer — groundsel also germinates in fall and spring. This means it’s a hardy, year-round broadleaf weed, growing in dry or moist grounds.
This weed is found in nursery plots, ornamental and vegetable gardens, disturbed sites, and fallow fields. So basically everywhere!
Leaves and Stem
The first true leaves on the common groundsel are called basal leaves. They are oval-shaped and slightly lobed with purplish undersides. The leaves are spiral-like on hollow, purple 4–18-inch long stems.
When the leaves are mature, they’re about 2–4 inches long and have deep, irregular lobes with toothed or jagged margins.
Flowers and Seeds
On the ground are numerous cylindrical daisy-like flowers that are ¼ to ½ of an inch long. The self-fertile flowers have black-tipped green bracts around their bases, and they emerge about six weeks after the weed sprouts.
These black, triangle-shaped bracts are important to note. While close relatives of common groundsel, such as dandelion and annual sow thistle, are edible, common groundsel is poisonous and shouldn’t be eaten. Knowing how to correctly identify plants when you’re foraging for edibles is critical, so be on the lookout for those bracts. If you see them, steer clear!
The seeds that form from the flowers are gray or red-brown and frost tolerant. They’re cylindrical and about ⅒ to ⅕ of an inch long. When they’re mature, the seeds have white feathery bristles on one end, almost like dandelions.
If you see what looks like a bigger version of the common groundsel—3½ feet tall—that’s a different species called the woodland groundsel.
Woodland groundsel shares similar characteristics to common groundsel, but its leaves are more lobed. And instead of being purple with toothed margins, the leaves are green or gray and wooly.
Though it grows on roadsides like its smaller counterpart, the woodland groundsel also grows in the forest. Perhaps what most distinguishes the two groundsels from each other is that the woodland emits a foul odor when damaged.
History of the Groundsel
The name Senecio is Latin for old man, which complements the fuzzy white seedheads of the common groundsel. That name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word groundeswelge, meaning ground swallower for its spreading habit.
Besides old-man-in-the-winter, as mentioned before, other names for the groundsel include common ragwort, chickenweed, simson, grimsel, staggerwort, and stinking Willie.
The common groundsel was originally from northern Africa, Asia, and Europe. Settlers are believed to have introduced it to the Americas and other countries through the grain they brought with them. Now it’s a cosmopolitan weed that grows in temperate regions of the world.
This weed has a history of being used to treat conditions like colic, menstrual disorders, and epilepsy. However, there’s not enough information on how it works.
Considering the weed’s toxicity, we don’t advise using it as medicine or a homeopathic remedy.
What Makes the Groundsel a Weed
Depending on the growing conditions, the common groundsel produces up to one million viable seeds. Because they spread so quickly and have no dormancy period, the groundsels produce multiple generations yearly.
How It Spreads
The feathery bristles on the groundsel’s seeds enable the weed to spread on windy days. What greater way to reproduce rapidly, especially during cool, moist fall and spring conditions?
The seeds can also spread if they’re on clothes, yard equipment, or crop seed and in irrigation water. The wind is not the only transportation method at that point, making the weed peskier than ever.
Common groundsel seeds last for at least a year in the soil. They’ll germinate when they fall to the ground or when they’re exposed to sunlight. The time it takes for them to grow before the flowers bloom is about five weeks.
Issues of the Common Groundsel
Weeds like the common groundsel are competitive and will take over or contaminate your crops and reduce their growth. So if you’re gardening, the groundsels have to go.
Another reason to remove this weed is its toxicity to livestock and humans. Ingesting this weed could produce symptoms like lethargy and vomiting caused by the pyrrolizidine alkaloids in them. The groundsel may also damage the lungs, cause chronic liver damage, and lead to death.
This plant isn’t only dangerous if eaten. Avoid grabbing it without gloves or walking around weedy lawns without shoes. The weed’s toxins can be absorbed in broken skin, so wash your hands and feet if you scratch yourself.
How to Eliminate the Groundsel
During the early stages of growth, the root system of the common groundsel is shallow. This makes it easier to remove the weed from where it grows. To control and eliminate groundsel and keep it from spreading seeds, pull plants before flowers bloom.
Don some durable gardening gloves and uproot the common groundsel from its taproot. After you’ve pulled up the weeds, bag them and throw them away so they can’t spread more seeds.
Even if the groundsels manage to spread some of their seeds, there’s still a way to keep them from growing. Apply 3 inches of coarse mulch before the seeds can germinate in your yard.
Instead of removing the weeds by hand, mow, till, or rototill the lawn if groundsel has gotten the upper hand. Once finished, wash or air spray your tools before using them again in case any escaped seeds attach to them.
You can treat common groundsel with herbicides to do the weed removal job as quickly and cleanly as possible. Use a pre-emergent weed killer, one that won’t harm your crops when weeds start to grow.
Chemical herbicides aren’t the only sprays you can use against groundsels. Try using a homemade vinegar solution. It may only kill the leaves, but added ingredients like salt will reach the roots. It’s also a money-saver if you’d rather not buy or use chemical solutions.
Food Source for Birds
Another name for the common groundsel is bird-seed, a fitting name for the weed.
If you have a pet bird or two, don’t throw out groundsel weeds right away. After uprooting them, remove the seeds and add them to bird seed mix before bagging weeds for the trash.
Birds like canaries and budgerigars (or budgies) will eat herb seeds like groundsel seeds. They go perfectly with other herb-derived seeds like chia, radish, cabbage, kale, and clover.
Wrapping up the Common Groundsel
Weeds generally have no place in your garden, but they may have some use in certain circumstances. The common groundsel plant can provide food for your pet bird. Otherwise, it’s likely going to end up in your trash barrel.
If you feel like you need to learn more about these pesky garden tenants, check out our weeds page to learn all about different weed varieties, treatment options, and surprising information.
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With a lifelong appreciation for the vibrant hues and serene beauty of landscapes, Sarah Keck brings a wealth of practical and observational gardening knowledge to her writing. Her hands-on experience stems from years of assisting her mother in tending a diverse array of plants, mastering the art of plant care through careful adherence to proven horticultural practices.
A seasoned observer, Sarah delights in the study and admiration of flourishing flower gardens and lush greenery during her frequent strolls through local parks and the quiet streets of her neighborhood. Her natural curiosity drives her to investigate various plant species, deepening her understanding of the flora she encounters.
In addition to her botanical pursuits, Sarah cherishes the culinary arts, drawing from her college experiences of handling and preparing fresh produce. Her penchant for discovery leads her to continually refine her methods, which she eagerly documents and shares with fellow gardening enthusiasts.