Monday, June 21, 2010

The Medieval Rose Plantain

The thrill of growing and holding ancient plants that gardeners for centuries before me have loved never leaves. Unlike other antiques such as furniture and pottery and jewellery, these are living antiques, rare and exquisite. My current pots of ancient Rose Plantain are thriving, the bright green rosettes of leaves already about 10-12 cm across, doing their winter bulking up before showing their perfect very double 'green roses' in summer. The ideal companion for them in posies are diminutive pale pink fragrant 'Cecile Brunner' roses with their perfect furled Hybrid Tea form (or lookalikes 'White Cecile Brunner', 'Perle D'Or', and sweet pea scented 'Mme Jules Thibaud).

The Rose Plantain is a form of the Broadleaf or Greater Plantain Plantago major The common form may be weedy but it has been dignified as one of the nine sacred herbs of Anglo Saxon medicine, mentioned in the ancient Lacnunga. It was, and still is, used for treating burns, sores, skin ulcers, and inflamed and raw skin. The Anglo Saxons and later herbals also recommended it to treat diarrhoea, undulant fevers and for use as a diuretic. The rose flowered variation has been known since the medieval period, and is a form in which the spike is compressed when young and the bracts are much enlarged to resemble petals. Medieval gardeners were always delighted by quaint variations on wild plants, frequently introducing them into their gardens, and Elizabethan John Parkinson wrote in that most delightful of all garden books Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629): "The Rose Plantaine hath been long in England". It certainly pleased Tudor and Elizabethan gardeners who delighted in quaint plants.

The Greater Plantain has another claim to fame. It became known as 'Traveller's Foot', and later 'Englishman's Foot' as it travelled with entusiasm wherever English colonies arose and naturalised there, earning the additional common names of 'Englishman's Foot' or 'Whiteman's Foot'. Older common names included Poverty Grass, Healing Blade, Canary Food, and two names derived from the old Anglo Saxon, Great Weybreed and Waybread (from 'weybroed').

Unlike the Greater Plantain, the Rose Plantain is not weedy and I am grateful for its very gentle seeding. Summer would not be the same without this reminder of  medieval, Tudor and Elizabethan gardeners who delighted in the curious.

If you share my love of antique plants and garden history you may like to look for one of my latest books 'In A Unicorn's Garden' (gorgeously produced by Murdoch Books covering the history of medieval gardens and plants, lavishly illustrated in full colour, 288 pages) on Amazon sites at (in the UK) or (in the USA) or in your favourite bookstore. My book 'Heritage Gardening' (published by Simon and Schuster, illustrated in full colour throughout, 256 pages ) is available through my website (click on the Products and Gifts button on the home page. You can also link to my author site with blogs, and my cottage blogs, using the links on the home page.

© Judyth McLeod

1 comment:

  1. great article. I have been growing this plant for decades without knowing its true name and history. It will now have a special place in my garden in Michigan, USA, in memory of the gardener who gave it to me so many years ago