Ribwort Plantain, Plantago lanceolata, growing on sea cliffs, Isle of Wight
This month I haven’t had much time to update this blog, but today is cold and damp and I have a chance to stop and look back over the last month. One of May’s highlights was a week’s trip to the Isle of Wight, where there were lots of interesting wild flowers: Spring Gentian, Hoary Stock, Fairy Flax, Kidney Vetch, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Thrift, Subterranean Clover, Rock Rose, Spring Beauty, Crosswort and Ivy Broomrape, some of which I will probably write about in future posts. But today I have chosen a very common plant to write about: Ribwort Plantain, Plantago lanceolata.
Ribwort is a perennial plant which has a rosette of spear-shaped leaves, from which grow short stems topped with compact heads of flowers with protruding, white stamens. The flowers are produced from April to August and are pollinated by the wind, beetles, flies and bees. The plant is pretty but quite subtle and is not always appreciated as much as it should be.
Ribwort is widespread in the British Isles, where it grows in lowland meadows and pastures and in upland grasslands. It can be found on disturbed ground on roadsides and river banks, in cultivated and waste ground, in lawns (where it can survive mowing and some will call it a “weed”) and on walls. Ribwort is tolerant of salt spray and grows by the seaside in sand dunes and on cliffs. Inland, it is found in the hills and on rock ledges and crevices, up to 845 metres above sea level on Great Dun Fell in Westmorland. It is also found in the rest of Europe and in North Africa and the Middle East, where it is native, and as an introduced plant in other parts of the world, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and parts of Asia and Africa. Because Plantago lanceolata likes disturbed ground, the presence of Ribwort pollen can be used as evidence for early agriculture.
Ribwort’s name comes from its narrow, ribbed lanceolate leaves, with their parallel veins. Other names include English Plantain, Narrowleaf Plantain, Black Plantain, Ribgrass, Tinker-tailor Grass, Windles and (listed in Flora Britannica) Fighting Cocks, Short Bobs, Soldiers and Sailors, Black Jacks, Hard-heads, Carl Doddies, Fire-weed and Fire-leaf. The latter two names come from the belief that dried Plantain leaves can set haystacks alight.
Ribwort is a member of the family Plantaginaceae. When I did Botany at university, this was a small family but the Plantaginaceae now includes what I always called the Scrophulariaceae (Figwort family), including some familiar and colourful flowers such as the Foxglove (Digitalis), Toadflaxes (Linaria), Speedwells (Veronica) and even the subject of my PhD thesis, the Snapdragon Antirrhinum majus. Who would have predicted that?
Ribwort was used in children’s games such as Soldiers (winding the stem around itself just below the head and pulling it tight to catapult the head) and a game known as Dongers (in Kent) or Carl Doddies (in Scotland), where the plantain heads were used like a conker on a string to hit an opponent’s plantain head. (More details are given in Flora Britannica.) No batteries required!
We have Ribwort in our small wildflower mini-meadows on the allotment and in our back garden. Ribwort is often found in wildflower seed mixtures and is one of the first species to become established. In both our “meadows” Ribwort was very numerous in the first couple of years, but as other species have become established it moved to the edges as older plants died off and were replaced by their offspring, and on the allotment it grows along the grass path between plots, where I am happy for it to remain. Ribwort’s seeds contain a water retaining “gel” that allow them to germinate in dry soils. This gel allows seeds to stick to animals and machinery, aiding their dispersal. The seed can also remain dormant for 50 – 60 years in soil if the growing conditions aren’t right.
Ribwort leaves are edible but can be bitter. Older leaves are very fibrous and in his book “Around The World In 80 Plants” Stephen Barstow recommends using the youngest leaves in a mixed salad and advises boiling older leaves before eating. The closely related Buck’s-horn Plantain, Plantago coronopus, is sometimes cultivated and both Stephen Barstow and Joy Larkcom suggest growing it. Ribwort seeds taste nutty and can be made into a flour and the buds prior to flowering are moist and crunchy and have been described as tasting like mushrooms.
The Plants For A Future and Phytology websites both list a range of medicinal uses for the plant, including as a treatment for coughs (because of the mucilage the plant contains) and wounds (as it staunches blood flow and has antbacterial properties). Ear infections and bladder complaints can also be treated with the plant. But beware – there can be side effects. The plant can be used for its fibre too, and to make gold and brown dyes.
Ribwort is eaten by a range of insects but slugs and snails don’t like it. I’m writing about Ribwort now because this is the food plant of one of Britain’s rarest butterflies, the Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia), which is mostly restricted to the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands. When we visited the Isle of Wight in mid May, the butterfly was on the wing, mostly on the sea cliffs where Ribwort was growing. If we had visited earlier in the year, we might have seen its very handsome caterpillars feeding on the plant. The butterfly is named after Lady Eleanor Glanville, who discovered the species in Lincolnshire in the 1690s.
Glanville Fritillaries mating. (Photo by Vanna Bartlett.)