Ribwort Plantain

(Plantago lamceolata) Divination games were played at Midsummer (hence the Shetland names Johnsmas Flowers and Johnsmas Pairs, Midsummer Day being also St John's Day) in the north of England and in Scotland. The procedure differed a little here and there, but they were all basically the same; one of them involved taking three stalks of Ribwort, stripping them of their flowers, and putting them in the left shoe, and afterwards under the pillow. In the morning, if the lover was to become the husband, they should again be in bloom; if he were untrue, they should remain flowerless. That same game was known in the Faeroe Islands, where it was looked on as a simple wish fulfilment custom (Williamson). In Berwickshire, two spikes were taken in full bloom, wrapped in a dock leaf and put under a stone, or, in Shetland, buried in the ground (Banks). One spike represented the girl, the other the man. Next morning, if both were in bloom, it was a sign of true love between the two (Denham).

Cheshire children, when they first see the flower heads in spring, repeat the rhyme:

Chimney sweeper all in black,

Go to the brook and wash your back,

Wash it clean or wash it none;

Chimney sweeper, have you done?

It is probably a good luck charm (Dyer. 1889). Chimney Sweeper, or Sweeper, are widely distributed as local names for the plant (Grigson. 1955; Dyer. 1889; A E Baker). So is Sweep's Brushes (Macmillan, Britten & Holland; A E Baker).

The flower heads are used as "soldiers" or "fighting cocks" in a children's game. One description of the "Soldiers" game from Kintyre has one child holding out a duine dubh (black man), and his opponent tries to decapitate it with another. If one soldier takes the head off another, it is called a Bully of one, Bully of two, and so on (MacLagan). Hebridean children knew the ribwort stalks as "giants", but the game was played in exactly the same way. Girls find the "giants" useful for making daisy chains - they pick the daisy tops and string them on the tallest giants they can find (Duncan). The "soldiers" game is also known as Black Man (the duine dubh already mentioned), Cocks-and-hens, Hard Heads, or Knights (Opie & Opie. 1969). "Cocks", for the plant as well as the game, is the name in northern England (Brockett), and in Kent it is apparently known as "Dongers" (Mabey. 1998). The game had another significance in Somerset, where the plant is given the name (among many others) of Tinker Tailor Grass. The blow that knocks the head off marks the profession of the future husband, in the tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor tradition (Elworthy. 1888), a divination game also played with Rye-grass. The "soldiers" game is also known as Kemps in the northern counties and in Scotland. To kemp is to fight (OE campe, soldier, with similar words in Scandinavian languages). In some parts of Scotland, the game is called Carldoddie, probably from the names of Charles Stuart and King George (MacLagan) - carl is Charles (the Prince) and doddies were the supporters of King George, doddie being the local name for George.

Ribwort is a wound herb: "Plantain ribbed, that heals the reaper's wounds". The leaves are simply applied to the cut, and are used that way in Ireland, Scotland, and there is a record from India, too (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk). A refinement to the technique is the traditional Irish remedy for stopping bleeding from a cut - by chewing the plant before applying it (O'Toole). An ointment for wounds using ribwort was in use in the 15th century: "take a pint of juice of ribwort, and a pint of vinegar, and a pint of honey, and boil them together to the thickness of the honey, and keep it, for it is full precious" (Dawson. 1934). It must have been, for a pint of ribwort juice must have taken some collecting!

Ribwort is mentioned as a Highland remedy for boils and bruises (Grant), and in the west of Ireland, for a "lump" (Gregory. 1925). A leaf tea is used for bronchitis or asthma (Conway), and as a gargle it soothes sore throats (Schauenberg & Paris). A record from South Uist shows that the leaves were applied to relieve sore feet (Shaw). The seeds, left in water for two hours to swell, are a mild purgative (Fluck), and a cold decoction of the plant was a Russian folk remedy for constipation (Kourennoff), but a leaf infusion was used in Norfolk for just the opposite effect - to cure diarrhoea (V G Hatfield). A similar preparation has been used for conjunctivitis, as an eyewash (Wickham). In earlier times, e.g., the Anglo-Saxon version of Apuleius, this plant was prescribed "for bite of snake", for a "quartan agus", and "for uselessness of the ears". As far as the snakebite remedy is concerned, it should be noted that Ribwort was given for hydrophobia in Ireland (Denham). Perhaps the most ambitious prescription comes from Russian folk medicine, for an infusion of ribwort seeds was taken for sterility (Kourennoff).

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