Groundsel

(Senecio vulgaris) An ubiquitous weed, apparently blooming twelve months a year. But it has an association with witchcraft, both good and bad; in the Western Isles it was, in Martin's day, used as a counter-charm, in particular when milk was being stolen by witchcraft (Polson), and there are records of the use of pieces of the root as amulets against the evil eye (Folkard). On the other hand, it seems that in the Fen country, the belief was that the witches were actually responsible for the weed itself. A small patch growing beside an old trackway showed that a witch had stopped there to urinate; large patches meant that a number of them had met to plot. Groundsel growing in the thatch was a sign that a witch had landed there during a broomstick flight. It was also believed that witches could never die in winter, but only when the groundsel was in flower (even though it seems to be in flower all the year round). The point was that the witch could then take with her a posy of the flowers, by which the devil would recognise her as his follower (Porter). Burning groundsel was a way of driving evil spirits from the house, and incidentally would get rid of vermin in clothes and bedding.

Uses of groundsel in domestic medicine have been many and varied, either as charms or as genuine, if misguided, medicines. An example of the charm is its use for ague. A woman suffering from an ague was recommended to tell her husband to tie a handful of groundsel to her bare bosom while the charmer spoke the necessary incantation (Black). It had to remain there, and as the herb withered, the ague would go away. Wesley prescribed another charm for the same sickness - "For the Ague ... take a Handful of Ground-sell, shred it small, put it in a Paper Bag, four Inches square, pricking that Side which is to [go] next the skin full of Holes. Cover this with thin Linnen, and wear it on the Pit of the Stomach, renewing it two Hours before the Fit: Tried". That charm was being used in Cornwall long after Wesley's time (Deane & Shaw).

There is a typical wart charm from Devonshire: rub a wart with groundsel to make it go. The leaves should then be thrown over your head, and afterwards they should be buried by someone else. As the leaves rot, so will the wart (Crossing). On the other hand, groundsel poultices were quite common and widespread for boils (Dacombe; Randell; Grant; Foster) and abcesses (Hampshire FWI), and one finds it being recommended in Apuleius for "sore of loins" (lumbago, that is), in Cockayne's translation. The same source recommended groundsel for wounds, pounded "with old lard, lay it to the wounds", and "if any one be struck with iron", when the plant had to be taken at early morning, or at mid-day, pounded and mixed with "old lard". There are many examples of its use as a wound herb, up to and including Gerard's time, and another of his prescriptions stated that "the leaves of Groundsel boiled in wine or water and drunke, heale the pain and ach of the stomacke that proceeds of Choler ...". Gypsies were using it for the same purposes until very recently, i.e., the bruised leaf and stems to relieve colic and inflammations (sprains too) (Vesey-Fitzgerald). There is a Cornish belief, obviously based on homeopathic magic, that groundsel acts in different ways according to the direction in which the leaves are stripped from the stem. If upwards, that is, beginning from the root, with the knife ascending to the leaf, it makes it good as an emetic; if striped downwards, it should be used as a cathartic (Hunt).

A Norfolk remedy used groundsel to bring relief to rheumatic sufferers. All they had to do was soak their feet in water in which the plant had been boiled for ten minutes (Randell). The plant enjoyed the reputation of being able to soften water, if it is poured, boiling, on the plant. Such water would be used as a skin wash (Pratt). There are very many more ailments for which groundsel has been used in earlier times, and there is even a record from Germany of using it as a children's vermifuge, and an infusion is still used in Cornwall for jaundice, and to relieve obstructions of the bladder and kidneys (Deane & Shaw).

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