When Europeans came to North America, they inadvertently brought many things with them. Besides small pox, they brought with them the seeds of plantain (Plantago major and P. lanceolata). Botanists speculate that the seeds traveled with the Europeans in the clods of mud-impacted horses’ hooves. American Indians observed that wherever the White man went, this plant would soon appear; thereby, gaining the common 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.”
Plantain grows in any kind of soil, from gravel and sidewalk cracks, to rich garden soil. This British native has bright-green, round leaves growing in a basal rosette. It bears a green-brown, cylindrical flowering spike with teeny lilac and yellow stamens. Depending on the soil, plantain’s size will range from five inches to a foot in height. The herb plantain is no relation to the tropical fruit plantain, of which the banana is a subspecies.
Plantain grows everywhere Europeans have settled, and is despised in many countries for its link to a colonial past. 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.
Long ago, plantain was highly respected in its homeland. It was considered one of the nine sacred herbs of the ancient Saxon’s, and called the “mother of herbs” in Anglo-Saxon poetry.
Once established in North America, plantain’s value was quickly recognized by American Indians. One tribe gave it a name which translates as “life medicine,” a kind of panacea, or cure-all.
Internally, Colonial Americans used plantain to reduce prolonged fevers, to prevent tuberculosis when early symptoms were presenting, and also to treat cholera. Plantain “purifies” the blood and tones the lungs when there has been a debilitating illness.
Recent clinical studies show plantain’s efficacy in chronic bronchitis, and for symptoms of the common cold. In combination with other herbs, plantain has shown analgesic activity when treating pain due to chronic gastroduodenitis.
Topically, plantain is a marvel when applied to bites or stings. When applying plantain to an insect bite, simply pick a leaf, chew it for 10 seconds until the mucilage is released (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 sting site. Leave it in place for five minutes. The itch and inflammation will completely disappear. As a salve, plantain soothes irritated or ulcerated skin and wounds.
With great irony we tread over a seemingly insignificant plant, unaware of its value, though named after the path of the colonizers who trod over lands often unaware of the value of the land’s diversity, and the culture of its inhabitants.
The above article appeared in the Urban Forager of the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, August 29, 2010.