I have long admired the great sweeps of blooming Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea, formerly Senecio aureus) that adorn part of the woodland garden at the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill every spring. The bright yellow daisy-like flowers on 1-3-foot stems add a lively glow to the early spring landscape. The NC Botanical Garden has mixed these flowers with other early-blooming natives like blue Woodland Phlox, producing a wildflower meadow beloved by pollinators and people alike.
Bloom time in my part of the Piedmont of North Carolina usually occurs in March and April. The picture above was taken when my stand was about to reach peak bloom on March 17. It still displays some blooms even now, although many of the flowers have finished, replaced with a white tuft of seeds.
I suspect that’s how this flower got its common name. Someone thought the white fluffy seed heads looked like rags, and wort is just an old English word for plant, hence, ragwort.
I like what Golden Ragwort offers my landscape: early bright color in a moist area at the bottom of a hill in a shady area that grows shadier as the canopy above leafs out, a low basal rosette of heart-shaped evergreen leaves that are deep green on top and deep purple underneath, and a spreading habit that makes this wildflower an excellent groundcover for moist areas. The flower buds are deep purple too, as are the bloom stalks. It’s just a lovely little plant.
You can find this wildflower fairly easily at speciality nurseries. Mine were passalong plants. The landscaper we hired to erect our deer fencing decided our yard needed Golden Ragwort, so he dug up some from his yard and brought it to us. It’s been three or four years now, and the basal rosettes are spreading nicely. Thanks, Matthew!
After the plants finish blooming, I cut off the old stalks, making it easy to mow over any plants that are migrating into the “lawn” without hurting them.
Golden Ragwort is listed as a toxic plant. However, the toxicity is considered low, meaning that touching the plant doesn’t usually present a problem, and you or your animals would need to eat a pound or two of leaves to ingest enough poison to do serious damage. But if you keep pasture animals, you probably don’t want this flower growing where your animals can graze on it.
There’s a widely repeated myth in England that a related species can kill horses when the horses inhale a single seed of the English species of Golden Ragwort. Not true, impossible really. But such is the power of these myths that when an English friend of mine visited my garden and asked about the lovely yellow flowers, she visibly recoiled in horror when I told her their name.
Many plants — native and non-native — are toxic, some much more than others. Hellebores, for example, are more toxic than Golden Ragwort. Unless your garden is visited often by small children or pets with a fondness for dining on vegetation, most of these plants can be safely integrated into your landscape. Of course, err on the side of caution if you are worried.
But if you have a moist area — say a drainage or a low spot at the bottom of a hill — consider adding Golden Ragwort to your landscape. As long as this plant remains in at least somewhat moist soil, it can tolerate light levels from full sun to dense shade.
And in the springtime, it will awaken your early spring landscape with sunshine.