The following article appeared in the August 2008 issue of Jetwork magazine from Mumbai, India.
Common plantain, also known as White-man’s foot and ribwort, has had a long ethnobotanical history as it has followed Europeans around the globe. Though often thought of as an insignificant weed, plantain is edible, valuable in first-aid and chronic illnesses, and economically available. Its constituents provide many of plantain’s medicinal actions, such as anti-hemorrhagic, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, laxative, hypotensive, expectorant, antitussive, diaphoretic, tissue restorative, vulnerary poultice, and as a snake-bite remedy.
When the European’s came to North America, they inadvertently brought many things with them. Besides small pox, the European’s brought with them the seeds of plantain, Plantago major. Botanists speculate that the seeds traveled in the clods of mud impacted into the bottom of the Europeans’ horses’ hooves. Native tribes observed that wherever the white man went, this plant would soon spring up. Hence, plantain gained the name “White-man’s foot”. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha” might have been the first written reference to plantain as White-man’s foot:
“Wheresoe’er they tread, beneath them
Springs a flower unknown among us,
Springs the White-man’s Foot in blossom.”
Before plantain was ever given the name White-man’s foot, it was considered one of the nine sacred herbs of the ancient Saxon’s, and called the “mother of herbs” in Anglo-Saxon poetry (Treben, 1988). In an 11th century leechbook, or book of folk remedies, an application of plantain leaves to a traveler’s sore or swollen feet is suggested. This might be an even earlier reason behind the name White-man’s foot (Duke, 2001, p.151). Once plantain became established in North America, one American Indian nation gave it a name which translates as “life medicine,” a kind of panacea, or cure-all (Bergeron, 2000).
The herb plantain is a British native plant gathered during the period in which plantain flowers. The plant grows very close to the ground as a basal rosette of leaves, and bears a green-brown, cylindrical flowering spike with inconspicuous lilac and yellow stamens (BHP, 1983, p.164). Depending on the soil, plantain’s size will range from five inches to a foot in height. The herb mostly consists of the dried leaves, although the root and seeds are also used (BHP, 1983, p.164; Barnes, Anderson, & Phillipson, 2002, p.376). The herb plantain is no relation to the tropical fruit plantain, of which the banana is a subspecies.
Plantain grows everywhere Europeans have settled, in any kind of soil, from breaking through gravel and cracks in the street pavement, to rich garden soil. Worse plants could follow a population around. The edible and medicinal properties of plantain make it a top plant for the survival of a settling community. Its early spring leaves are edible either raw in salads or boiled as a pot herb, and high in many vitamins and minerals. Topically, plantain is a marvel when applied to bites or stings, and has much reputed success in treating snake bites (Ellingwood, 1919, p.380; Moerman, 1998, p.416). When applying plantain to an insect bite, caused by perhaps a mosquito or an ant, simply pick a leaf of plantain, chew it for about 10 seconds until the mucilage is released from the leaf (rubbing it in the fingers a bit is also an acceptable method if one would rather not chew the leaf), and place the wad of juicy plantain leaf directly on the place of the sting. Leave it in place for about five minutes. The itch and inflammation will decrease significantly, if not completely disappear. Made into a salve, plantain soothes irritated or ulcerated skin and wounds. For toothaches, a cotton ball can be soaked in plantain juice and applied to the sensitive gum (Ellingwood, 1919, p.380).
Internally, plantain’s astringent, styptic and blood purifying qualities have been traditionally used in British, North American, and Unani (where Plantago major is known as Baartang) medicine for diseases of the blood and lungs where there is long-standing depravity of blood and nutrients resulting in loss of tissue tone. In the body, symptoms which plantain addresses can show up as hemorrhages, hemorrhoids with irritation and bleeding, diarrhea and dysentery with blood, swollen glands, cystitis with blood in the urine, spitting blood, tender gums, and nocturnal incontinence in children (Ellingwood, 1919, p.380; BHP, 1983, p.164; Khare, 2004, p.374). Colonial Americans used Plantago major to reduce prolonged fevers, to prevent tuberculosis when early symptoms were presenting, and also to treat cholera (Sauer, 2001, p.246-248).
Recent clinical studies with plantain reported in Barnes, Anderson and Phillipson (2002) have shown that after treatment, diagnosed erosions and mucus discharge accompanied with blood have completely healed. Plantain was also effective in cases of chronic bronchitis, either of a spastic or non-spastic nature. For improvement of subjective and objective symptoms of the common cold, plantain has appeared to be effective. In combination with other herbs, plantain has shown analgesic activity when treating pain due to chronic gastroduodenitis (Barnes, Anderson & Phillipson, 2002, p. 376, 377; BHP, 1983, p.164). Both the traditional use and current studies point to plantain’s use in depleted conditions, especially those of a chronic nature.
The chemical constituents of plantain most responsible for its healing actions are allantoin, aucubin, apigenin, baicalein, baicalin, scutellarein, salicylic acid and ascorbic acid (Barnes, Anderson & Phillipson, 2002, p.376). Aucubin and baicalein have demonstrated liver-protective properties, and aucubin has shown activity against the bacteria Micrococcus flavus and Staphylococcus aureus (Barnes, Anderson & Phillipson, 2002, p.377). An infusion of plantain in water showed anti-inflammatory and capillary strengthening properties. In anaesthetized dogs with normal blood pressure, a 125mg extract of plantain lowered the arterial blood pressure by 20-40 mmHg (Barnes, Anderson & Phillipson, 2002, p.376). Baicalein has demonstrated antioxidant, hepatoprotective and anti-inflammatory actions, and is currently being researched further.
A mucilage made of polysaccharides is on Plantago spp. seed coats. The seed of an Indian species of plantain, Plantago ispaghula Roxb. will swell when mixed with water, giving bulk and lubrication to stools, as a result, P. ispaghula can be used to decrease transit time for acute or chronic diarrhea, or to stimulate peristalsis in constipation. A reduction of serum cholesterol levels can occur with intake of P. ispaghula, and possibly Plantago major, due to the mucilaginous fiber binding to bile acids and causing them to be excreted, thereby necessitating the liver to manufacture more bile acids from cholesterol, thus lowering the body’s cholesterol levels (Khare, 2004, p.373).
With great irony we tread over a seemingly humble, insignificant plant, unaware of its value, which is named after the path of the colonizers who trod over the lands of the world often unaware of the value of the diversity of the land and the culture of its inhabitants.
Barnes, J., Anderson, L.A., and Phillipson, J.D. (2002). Herbal Medicines, 2nd ed. (London: Pharmaceutical Press): 376-378.
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Duke, J.A. (2001). Handbook of Edible Weeds. (Boca Raton, FL, USA: CRC Press): 151.
Ellingwood F. (1998). American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy. Reprint of the 1919 edition. (Sandy, Oregon, USA: Eclectic Medical Publications): 380-381.
Khare, C.P. (2004). Indian Herbal Remedies: Rational Western Therapy, Ayurvedic and Other Traditional Usage, Botany. (Berlin: Springer): 373-374.
Longfellow, H.W. (2000). Hiawatha; A Poem. Provided by R. Wallace, 2000. Retrieved on February 29, 2008 from http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/modeng/modengL.browse.html
Moerman, D.E. (1998). Native American Ethnobotany. (Portland, Oregon, USA: Timber Press): 416-417.
Sauer, C. (2001). Sauer’s Herbal Cures: America’s First Book of Botanic Healing, 1762-1778. Translated and edited by W.W. Weaver. (New York: Routledge): 246-248.
Treben, M. (1988). Health Through God’s Pharmacy: Advice and Experiences With Medicinal Herbs. (Steyr, Austria: Ennsthaler).
USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Vol. 3: 245.
USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA NRCS. Wetland Flora: Field Office Illustrated Guide to Plant Species. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.