Sunday, May 8, 2022

The Rise of the Ragworts


The common plant name ‘ragwort’ is probably way too similar to the word ragweed for comfort, but the ragworts are completely different plants – and quite worthy of the garden. The word ‘wort’ is an old English term for plant and ‘rag’ refers to the ragged edges of the leaves, thereby denoting that this is a plant with ragged edges.

Packera anonyma

The species in Georgia were previously in the genus Senecio but are now considered to be Packera.  Several of them have the common name golden ragwort or golden groundsel. The name ragwort was first applied to Senecio jacobaea (now Jacobaea vulgaris), a similar-looking plant native to Eurasia. It is not unusual for our native plants to pick up common names from Old World plants because that is what early explorers knew.

The seven species in Georgia are mostly perennial. The species known as butterweed (Packera glabella) is an early-blooming annual/biennial of moist floodplains where it can create dense populations in early spring. However it is not limited to wild areas; it has found my front lawn (which is moist) and spread happily there too. I leave it for the small bees and early flower flies and then try to deadhead as much as I can. Its thick but hollow stems make great spyglasses for toddlers too!

Packera glabella
Packera tomentosa

Another early blooming species is woolly ragwort (Packera tomentosa). I first saw this one in the granite outcrop communities on Arabia Mountain. The pale, woolly leaves are thick and distinctive.

Packera aurea at my house

A mid-spring species is golden ragwort (Packera aurea). I have it in abundance now but originally started with only 3 plants from a friend. It is evergreen and blooms in shade; it is also deer resistant so I have happily moved it to shady spots and given it away to friends and plant sales. Every spring it makes beautiful sweeps of yellow flowers in April.

Packera anonyma on a roadside this week

The late spring species gracing roadsides now is Small’s ragwort (Packera anonyma). I love the way it seems to come out of nowhere, spreading sunshine in large sweeps of color. It grows happily in drier conditions than the equally prolific butterweed. Bloom time and location are two key ways to distinguish the two without leaving your car.

I have not encountered the other 3 species in Georgia, but the one called roundleaf groundsel (Packera obovata) has similar foliage to P. aurea but is more sun tolerant. The final two species are limited in range in Georgia; the first one is Blue Ridge ragwort (Packera millefolium). It has highly dissected foliage and is found only in Rabun County on high elevation rock outcrops. The second is balsam ragwort (Packera paupercula); it is found in moist prairies in Floyd County and has foliage similar to P. anonyma. My friends Richard and Teresa Ware of Floyd County also have photos of P. crawfordii, a species of bog areas, that might be in NW Georgia.

I hope you’ll learn to appreciate ragwort and perhaps even introduce a species or two to your garden. It’s hard to beat for dependable spring blooms.

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