The Oxford Ragwort story

The opening of the Didcot to Oxford branch of the Great Western Railway did not only provide ease of movement for people and goods, but it also facilitated the spread of an invader.

At the very end of the 1690s a species of plant was brought over from Sicily and introduced into the Oxford Botanic Gardens. Over the years the plant became established and thrived to the extent that within 100 years it had 'escaped' and could be found growing on the city walls and in the masonry of colleges. This led to the plant being given the common name of 'Oxford Ragwort' as it is distinct from the larger native 'Common Ragwort'.

Oxford Ragwort
© Crown copyright, GB Non-native species secretariat

The plant was first found on the slopes of Mount Etna and is a hybrid of two species Senecio aethnensis and Senecio chrysanthemifolius only found in Sicily, each growing at different altitudes. This yellow flowered plant Senecio squalidus is a member of the Daisy family and all parts of the plant are poisonous, with the sap burning bare skin. Its seeds float on air currents like the Dandelion so it was inevitable that they would slowly spread from their intended home.

Oxford Ragwort by Platform 1 at Culham
Oxford Ragwort by Platform 1

Originally growing on the volcanic ash slopes of Mount Etna, the plant found an ideal home in the ballasted railway trackbed. Seeds would be swept along by the air currents from passing trains and they also got whisked far along the track after entering carriages and wagons. Eventually spreading throughout most of the UK rail network it can now also be found on building sites, roadsides, waste ground and wherever a suitable habitat can be found. Keep an eye out trackside any time between April and October and you should spot the escapee from Oxford.