Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Medicinal uses of navelwort

Navelwort (Umbilicus rupestris), also known as wall pennywort, is abundant on walls and stony hedgebanks in western parts of the British Isles.
Allen and Hatfield consider its medicinal uses to be be so ‘broadly similar [to those of houseleek, Sempervivum tectorum] that they must surely have stood in for one another to no small extent’. In eastern areas where navelwort was scarce houseleek was used [1]. It is interesting to note that many of the medicinal uses claimed for houseleek are also claimed for the exotic Aloe vera.
Horatio Clare, writing of his childhood in the Black Mountains of Wales in the 1970s, records that when Jack, his mother’s farm-helper, ‘nearly sliced his sister’s leg off with his scythe his mother filled the wound with pennywort and it healed’ [2].
A talk given to the Phytological Club in March 1854 provided an account of uses of navelwort ‘among the lower classes of the English people’:
Mr Slater of Poole introduced it a few years since as a cure for epilepsy, since which time it has been used, although I believe to only limited extent amongst medical men.
In Monmouthshire and Herefordshire … the leaves were taken for urinal obstructions and ‘fits’; in Lancashire, amongst other complaints, they are likewise taken for ‘fits’.
In Herefordshire … they are used for corns and warts; in Worcestershire they are used for the same purpose; thence they are called ‘corn-leaves’. They are likewise used there to make a cooling ointment, and their juice is expressed and mixed with cream as a cooling lotion for sore faces or chaps in children; in the same manner as the juice of the houseleek [3].

Although it appears that no memories exist of navelwort being used treat fits and urinary conditions, material in Plant-lore Archive shows that it is still used to treat wide range of skin conditions, including boils and septic spots in Guernsey, burns in Gwynedd, chilblains in Devon, corns on the Isle of Man, spots and pimples and the removal of splinters and thorns in Cornwall, and warts in Swansea.

1. D.E. Allen & G. Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition, 2004: 134.
2. H. Clare, Running for the Hills, 2006: 104.
3. Phytologist, vol. 5: 135, 1854.

Image: Minehead, Somerset; March 2014.

Updated 26 October 2017.