Few weeds come up as quickly and resiliently as common groundsel.
Also known as old-man-in-the-spring, this European annual weed prefers our cool, wet winter weather, dying off each summer, but it never fails to return each year. In fact, common groundsel is classified as a ruderal species, which means it is one of the first plants to start growing in disturbed soil.
Common groundsel description
Like other members of the sunflower family, common groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) features a sunny yellow flower. Akin to dandelion’s, mature seed heads transform into puffballs that fly on every breeze. The flowers of common groundsel are smaller than those of dandelions, and the green bracts have black tips. The plant has an upright growth, reaching up to 2 feet in height, but usually closer to 16 inches.
Rather than the lion’s tooth leaves seen on dandelion plants, common groundsel features pinnately lobed leaves (with matching loops and curves on either side), and may be toothed near the edges. Leaves are smaller near the top of the plant and may be covered with fine hairs. The leaves are sessile, which means they attach directly to the plant. The stems are hollow and the root system is a shallow taproot.
If robbing nearby garden plants of sunlight and nutrients weren’t bad enough, common groundsel is also a carrier of disease pathogens (vector). It can host Cineraria leaf rust (Coleosporium tussilaginis), a fungal disease. It can also carry the fungus that causes black rot, another fungal disease that can affect citrus, chickpeas, cucurbits, such as cucumber or melon, tomatoes, and peas.
A toxic weed
While hailed as a medicinal plant, common groundsel contains chemicals, called pyrrolizidine alkaloids, that can make people and animals ill. Chronic exposure can cause irreparable liver damage. You’d have to eat an awful lot of it, but I avoid feeding it to my chickens, just to be on the safe side.
Controlling common groundsel
Common groundsel is self-pollinating. Each plant can produce 1,700 seeds, and there can be three generations per year. That ends up being a lot of weeds! The best way to control common groundsel is to prevent it from spreading in the first place. This means snatching seed heads any time they are seen and tossing them in the trash. Seedlings are far easier to pull than mature plants, so learn to recognize them and pull them out every time they are seen.
Heavy common groundsel infestations can be slowed or halted with sheet mulching. Follow these steps to successfully sheet mulch an area:
This is a temporary solution. Once the common groundsel underneath the cardboard has died and begun decomposing, the cardboard should be removed to avoid attracting termites. Personally, I find that a really thick (6 to 10”) layer of wood chips will kill off any weeds that were growing.
As with all weeds, this is an ongoing battle. Because these plants carry disease, it is better to be vigilant.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!