Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Groundsel to treat constipation

In March 1993 Elsie Vickery, mother of the compiler of this website, contributed the following note:

‘Tuesday we went to see Mr and Mrs Joby House, who used to be a Hewood [a hamlet in the west Dorset parish of Thorncombe].  [He told us] that for constipation you boiled groundsel [Senecio vulgaris] in lard and take that, and you will “shit through the eye of a needle”.  His sister Lucy had constipation so bad that when the doctor was called in the morning he said Lucy would be dead by 5 o’clock.  Mrs House went to the gypsies (Mrs Penfold) … and she told her how to cure her.  The doctor came late in the day, and Lucy was running around, there was shit everywhere.  The doctor had brought Lucy’s death certificate, but he was so mad he tore it up and put it on the fire.’

A second record of this use of groundsel is given in Michael Moloney’s Irish Ethno-botany (1919):

‘Before castor oil had attained its popularity as a safe and efficient purgative for children it was the practice in Ireland to add a sprig or two (according to age) of groundsel to the milk, which was then boiled, and given to constipated babies.’

David Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield in their Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition (2004) cite Moloney’s record but provide no further information regarding the use of groundsel to treat constipation in humans.  They do, however, mention that A.W. Moore, in his ‘Folk-medicine in the Isle of Man’, Yn Lioar Manninagh 3: 303-14 (1898) records that groundsel was used as a ‘purge for cows’.

Perhaps surprisingly, P-LA contains one record, from Muchelney, Somerset, in 2007, of groundsel being eaten:

‘I still put hairy bittercress [Cardamine hirsuta] and groundsel in my salads.’

Image:  Nunhead Cemetery, London Borough of Southwark, August 2021.