Ribwort (Plantago lanceolata) is a comfortingly familiar sight. Often the heads will peek above the surrounding grasses and flowers and give you a friendly nod from their slender stem. “It’s alright, I’m here!” it would calmly say. And familiar is the right word. Ribwort grows commonly, everywhere! I was inspired to write a little about this herb today having found a patch growing alone on a muddy track by the edge of an Oak wood. I watched as dog walkers tramped past this precious plant, and they watched (bemused) as I crouched down to photograph and spend some time with this common “weed”.
As a herbalist you’re often asked what a specific herb is “good for”, and an honest answer would be “many things!” I do talk about specific indications for herbs and know that this is useful, but it’s also nice to talk about a herb in terms of it’s actions. Ribwort it a drying herb – an astringent. The mucous membranes throughout our body are moist by nature (that’s one of their jobs!), but there are occasions when they produce too much mucus. Ribwort can be brought in to dry up these excess secretions and at the same time it will tone, heal and soothe inflammation. If you’re unsure of where there are mucous membranes in the body, they line the nasal passages, the little bronchial tubes in your lungs, they’re found in other places too, such as the uterus, the mouth, stomach, intestines, bowel, bladder and vagina. In some of these areas we’re very aware when there is too much mucus. When we have a cold, or experience a condition like hay fever, an overproduction of mucus is very apparent. We can see it. We can feel it. And it’s a pain. Ribwort is a very effective herb in these situations, clearing mucus/catarrh/congestion and stopping production of more at the source. Our mucous membranes will often be irritated during a viral infection like a cold or during an allergic reaction like hay fever. Ribwort will help to soothe and heal the membranes and this can result in pain relief for symptoms such as a sore throat (I love it for a hot, scratchy sore throat, especially when the ears are involved too).
Sometimes we might be aware of inflammation in other mucous membranes throughout our body. We might experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea when there is irritation somewhere in the digestive tract and discomfort and frequent urination might herald bladder irritation. Herbalists may use Ribwort in such cases to soothe and heal. As a home remedy, Ribwort could be drunk as an infusion to help the digestive tract recover from a common tummy bug, during an IBS episode, or to help during a cold, cough or sore throat (a must during tonsillitis!).
These wonderful healing properties don’t only benefit the mucous membranes – they’re also wonderful for the skin. Ribwort it an incredible first aid herb (prized by our ancestors) – and thanks to how commonly it grows, it can be called upon for grazes and cuts, bites and stings, and those annoying blisters on the back of your heels whilst you’re out walking. A simple “Plantain plaster” can be made by chewing one leaf into a bolus, pressing it over a cut or blister and then securing it place with another leaf. Spend some time with those leaves and note just how perfectly engineered they are for this purpose. Those linear ribs affording both strength and flexibility as a plaster, but once chewed or crushed, releasing the mucilage and healing juices within to other and adhere to the skin. For bites and stings simply crush up a leaf and rub it on – so useful for nettle and wasp stings! So once you know that Ribwort will calm angry, red, irritated and itchy skin, and help to stop bleeding, you realise there are many more occasions where you might like to use this herb externally. Eczema, nappy rash, allergic skin rashes, spots and so on. Another of Ribwort’s properties make it an excellent remedy for splinters. It is one of our drawing herbs. Herbalists may use powdered Ribwort in a warm poultice for this purpose, but at home the fresh leaves can be used. Even squeezing out a little of the juice on to the splinter site will help.
Above I’ve talked about the impact Plantago lanceolata has physically upon the body and whilst it is not generally known as a herb with great influence upon the emotions it is certainly an important herb for me when working with anxiety, frustration and even anger – to soothe, calm and heal…now where have we heard that before?
Here I have merely scratched the surface of this reliable herbal friend. It finds a role in many a herbal formulation and can be called upon for the most simple ailment or used in complex health conditions. Not, perhaps, the most glamorous of herbs, but reliable, remarkable and irreplaceable nonetheless.