Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, as we get into wintertime it becomes rather more challenging to find plants for the Wednesday Weed, especially as I have already covered more than a hundred of the botanical wonders that can be found within half a mile of my house. But it is also a time when overlooked leaves can suddenly be seen as other foliage dies away. Thus it was that, during my time at East Finchley Station car park a few weeks ago, I first noticed the bright leaves of Ribwort Plantain.
‘strap-shaped to long-oval, tapering gradually to the stalk, with 3-5 bold, parallel veins’.
The flower heads are a source of food for finches and other small birds during the winter time, and for butterflies and moths in the summer – many wildlife gardening books suggest leaving a patch of these plants to grow in the lawn as a handy waystation for these creatures. However, in his very interesting book No Nettles Required, Ken Thompson explains how, during a survey undertaken in Sheffield, it was easier to persuade people to grow a container full of stinging nettles in their gardens than to sacrifice a corner of the lawn and leave it unmown. Lawn aficionados , in my experience, love to have an expanse of smooth green sward, however much hard work it might be to create and maintain this effect. However, a little corner of Ribwort Plantain and longer grass provides a much enriched habitat for all kinds of animals.
The flowers have also been used as a replacement for conkers: the long stem enables each participant to whack the other person’s flowerhead until it comes off. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey reports how the game holds remnants of history:
‘In Kent this game is known as ‘dongers’ and in Scotland (along with the plant itself) as ‘Carl Doddies’: ‘Carl and Doddie are diminutives of Charles and George, and the game is an obvious reminder of the ’45 Jacobite Rebellion, with Bonnie Prince Charlie and King George III trying to knock each other’s heads off’.
On the Plant Lives website, Sue Eland describes how another old name for the plant is Kemps, probably a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word Cempa, or soldier, and most likely a result of this children’s game. Maybe it reminded the little darlings of battering one another with maces.Ribwort plantain is a native, and has acquired a whole raft of medicinal uses. The Permaculture website describes how the plant has been used for respiratory, urinary and middle ear complaints. However, it pays most attention to the plant’s use as for wounds and insect bites:
‘Simply gather and chew a couple of good looking leaves, then apply the ‘spit poultice’ to the afflicted area. Bleeding stops very quickly, and broken flesh is rapidly sealed together, due to the astringency of tannins, and the soothing mucilage. Plantains are mildly anti-septic, so they also help prevent infection. In addition, these plants are really useful against insect bites and stings, especially for children. Once again, chew or scrunch up the leaves until you get the juices flowing, then apply.’
As with dock, ribwort plantain is such a widespread plant that it can almost always be found nearby, with the exception of areas of very acid soil. It is an indicator of agricultural areas in the pollen record, as it is a great lover of grassland and disturbed soils. As such, it has often found its way into the cooking pot. The leaves are said to taste slightly like mushrooms, and as usual you could add them to salads, but for the more adventurous there is a recipe for Aubergine and Avocado Bake with Ribwort Plantain here . And what a delightful website this is! I would heartily recommend a browse if you fancy Sea Purslane Hummous or Tansy Pancakes.
Finally, I cannot leave the subject of Ribwort Plantain without mentioning the Nine Herbs Charm. This was an Anglo-Saxon incantation to be used when someone had been wounded or poisoned. The verse on Plantain goes as follows (taken here from the Odin’s-Gift website):
‘And you, Plantain, mother of herbs,
Open from the east, mighty inside.
over you chariots creaked, over you queens rode,
over you brides cried out, over you bulls snorted.
You withstood all of them, you dashed against them.
May you likewise withstand poison and infection
and the loathsome foe roving through the land.‘
I love the idea of this wayside plant being creaked over by chariots and snorted over by bulls (though to be absolutely botanically accurate, Ribwort Plantain is much less tolerant of trampling than its cousin, Greater Plantain (Plantago major) which will no doubt be the subject of a future Wednesday Weed). And more than this, I love the way that this humble, modest plant was called the mother of herbs, and was recognised as a powerhouse of healing. I suppose that we were more observant of and more grateful to the natural world when we couldn’t just go to Boots for a tube of Savlon or call for an ambulance.