Ribwort Plantain, also known as Plantago lanceolata, is a common, native perennial herb often found in dry, grassy areas such as roadsides, pastures, hedge banks and lawns. The generic name, Plantago, is derived from the Latin word planta (=sole of the foot), most likely due to the shape of the leaves of some plantain species that resembles a footprint. Ribwort Plantain's leaves have a defined, narrow, lance-like shape, hence the epithet lanceolata. It's a favourite food source of many insects, birds and even sheep, but is surprisingly unpopular with slugs and snails.
This species is just one of several plantains that have long traditional uses as healing herbs for sores, skin infections and insect bites. The leaves and seeds were used in herbal teas or as a syrup to treat cough, whooping cough, hoarseness, bronchitis and other respiratory disorders. Children were given a thickened syrup made from plantain's leaves sweetened with honey. The seeds contain plenty of mucilage, fatty oil, aucubin, and enzymes. Swallowed whole they act as an effective and harmless laxative. Crushed fresh leaves can be applied externally to swellings, bruises, nettle stings and inflamed wounds.
Magnus Spence mentioned plantain's (Plantago major) medicinal benefits in Flora Orcadensis (1914): 'In severe abrasions of the skin, the broad leaf was applied under the bandage to allay the immediate pain, and to prevent suppuration or blood-poisoning.'
In Shetland's folklore traditions, ribwort plantain was referred to as Johnsmas-flooer, and was used to predict romance- new anthers on a flower-head picked 24 hours previously meant marriage was on the way. This tradition dates back to an ancient Scandinavian custom which had a place in the folklore of Orkney and Faeroe Islands too. Roy Vickery quotes after a Norwegian Botanist Hoeg (1941), who writes:
'In these parts of the country (south-west and west Norway), and only here, it has been (and partly still is) common to foretell the future by means of that plant, by taking one or two flowering spikes of it on St John's Eve, picking off the stamens, and keeping the spike over night, usually under the pillow: If new stamens were developed in the morning (as will generally be the case), certain wishes would be fulfilled, mostly concerning matters of live and death, or love. Similar customs and names of the plant are known from the Faroes and the Shetlands, and must consequently be assumed to be very old, no doubt from before the year 1468' (sic)
Ribwort Plantain was also the subject of a game that's similar to conkers - children pick the stems and knock the flower heads together, battling it out to see whose head drops off the stem first. In Edinburgh this game was called ‘The 1 o’clock gun’ after the gun that fires everyday from Edinburgh Castle. Writer Sean Michael Wilson notes that: "When I was a kid in Edinburgh we used it for a cute wee game called ‘The 1 o’clock gun’ - we twisted the stalk around into a kind of noose, quickly pulled it (with the left hand pulling back sharply and the right hand moving forward) and then the head of the stalk would go shooting off. We used to see how far we could get it to go - great fun."
'The Illustrated Book Of Herbs, Their Medicinal And Culinary Uses' - from a text by Jiri Stodola & Jan Volak, 1985
'Healing Threads, Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands' - M. Beith, 2018, first published in 1995
'Vickery's Folk Flora' - R. Vickery, 2019
'Flora Celtica, Plants and People in Scotland' - W.Milliken & S.Bridgewater, 2013
'The Orkney Book Of Wildflowers' - T. Dean & A. Bignall, 2019
'Flora Orcadensis' - Magnus Spence , first published 1914, 2015 re-print