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Sweethearts and soothers: strange ways of ribwort plantain

PUBLISHED: 08:36 13 December 2017

Narrowleaf or ribwort plantain, Plantago lanceolata.

Narrowleaf or ribwort plantain, Plantago lanceolata.

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Grace Corne on the life and times of an overlooked but fascinating plant - the ribwort plantain

While walking round the garden recently on a winter ‘check up’ I was amazed to see the number of ribwort plantains which have appeared. This really is a population explosion. It was interesting to note that all the leaves were in a flat rosette form for the winter but when summer comes they will be upright.

Ribwort plantain is probably well suited to this area and was often grown on sandy soil to bind it, and to produce a valuable fodder crop where few other plants could survive. It was often deliberately introduced into new meadows. This custom was not without its dangers and one of the local names for this plant was ‘firegrass.’ When the field was cut for hay the grass would dry but the plantain leaves retained their moisture and could generate so much heat in a haystack that it actually flew on fire.

Ribwort plantain has been used medicinally for centuries. It has the ability to stop bleeding and I would not be surprised if there were still Norfolk gardeners who, when they have had a slight accident, will chew the leaves of ribwort plantain and place them on the wound. In medieval times plantain was especially used to treat head wounds, sores and dog bites as well as infected eyes and dropsy. Interestingly Chinese medicine uses the plant to treat breathing problems although in Britain ribwort plantain often gets the blame for causing hay fever. However there is no doubt that a leaf of this plant rubbed on a nettle sting is every bit as effective in bringing relief as a dock leaf.

One custom, which has probably been discontinued, is the game children played with the flower heads of ribwort plantain. The plant stems would be bent round behind the flower head enabling the head to be pushed off and shot at speed. It obviously made an ideal ‘weapon’ and at the start of the twentieth century it was not unknown for a young man to select his future sweetheart by ‘pinging her neck’ with a plantain flower head.

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