Common Name: Plantain, Broadleaf plantain, Wayside plantain, White man’s foot, Englishman’s foot, Snakeweed, Waybread, Cart track plant, Dog’s ribs, Podoroshnik (Russia), Slan-lus (Scotland), Breitwegerich (Germany) – Plantain is from the Old English word “plantane” which is derived from the genus name Plantago.
Scientific Name: Plantago major – The generic name is from the Latin planta, which means “the sole of the foot,” and refers to the ovate shape of the leaves. Major is the comparative form of magnus, the Latin word for large or great.
Potpourri: Like the footprints which provide its etymological provenance, the common plantain has extended from its origins in Eurasia to occupy a global presence transported in the wake of human migrations. As “Englishman’s foot” it followed the peregrinations of the British in colonization and as “white man’s foot” it established itself in the lands of the Native Americans. The innocuous rosette of oblong radial leaves with predominant parallel veins that characterize the common plantain are ever present in the fields and pathways of the world. That it is almost universally considered a noxious weed is ironic as it has historically been one of the most potent of the ancient herbal remedies. Common plantain offers a panacea to the hiker, as it is an effective treatment for most trail related maladies: it reduces the inflammation and the pain from insect bites and nettles; it soothes sunburned skin; it is an astringent and can be poulticed to reduce the bleeding and swelling from the inevitable scrapes and thorn punctures; and it reduces the itchiness of poison ivy. In the 18th Century, the Dutch physician and botanist Herman Boerhaave even recommended binding plantain to the feet so as to endure the fatigue of long hikes. Common plantain is nature’s first aid kit and the hiker’s friend.
In antiquity, the people of Mesopotamia used plantain to treat dysentery, a malady of intestinal inflammation characterized by abdominal pain and consequently to treat any stomach disorder. By the time of the Roman Empire, it had extended to more general use: an Egyptian-trained physician of the Roman army named Dioscorides prescribed it for its cooling and soothing properties; the venerable Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 CE) found it invaluable in the treatment of rabies and considered it as having a vulnerary function as evidenced by his assertion that “if it be put into a pot where many pieces of flesh are boiling, it will sodden them together.” The early Christians ascribed plantain as marking the pathways of those who followed Christ, whose beneficence endowed the humble plant with thaumaturgic properties. The name “cart track plant” and the Russian podoroshnik, which means “along the road” also suggest a pedestrian etymology. The Anglo-Saxons who preceded the Normans as the rulers of the British Isles from the 5th to the 10th centuries considered plantain as one of their nine sacred herbs, and used it for a wide variety of ailments that ranged from a worm divesting vermifuge to a treatment for hemorrhoids. They named it “waybread,” which, based on its roots in the words “way” and “broad,” indicate that it was the plant with the broad leaves found along the road, or “wayside plantain.” The Scottish name “slan-lus” means “plant of healing.”
The Renaissance Period evoked the emergence of Europe from the intransigent religious dogmas of the Dark Ages that accompanied the twilight of the Pax Romana. The spread of knowledge made possible by Guttenberg’s printing press in 1440 gave impetus to all who sought to convey their wisdom to the masses; the arts and sciences flourished and the age of discovery and invention ensued. The enlightenment extended to the nascent field of botany, which manifested as a tabulation of known medicinal plants. The noted English herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote in the pharmaceutical sourcebook The English Physitian in 1652 that plantain “groweth so familiarly in meadows and fields and by pathways , and is so well known that it needeth no description.” He followed with a prodigious list of treatments among which were: “The clarified juice drank for a few days helps excoriations or pains in the bowels. It stays all manner of fluxes, even women’s courses, when too abundant, and staunches the too free bleeding of wounds. It can also be profitably applied to all hot gouts, in the hands and feet. It is also good to apply to bones our of joint, to hinder inflammations, swellings and pains that presently rise thereon. Boiled in wine, it kills worms which breed in old and foul ulcers. One part of the herb water and two part of the brine of powdered beef, boiled together and clarified, is a remedy for all scabs and itch in the head and body, tetters, ringworms, shingles and running and fretting sores. All Plantains are good wound-herbs, for wounds and sores, internal and external.” Clearly, plantain was seen as a natural wonder drug.
The common knowledge of the availability and evident medicinal efficacy of plantain was so pervasive that it was widely and routinely referred to in literature. In Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale starts with a prologue that includes “plantayne and paritorie.” Shakespeare evokes the use of plantain in Romeo and Juliet and in Love’s Labour’s Lost as a treatment for a broken shinbone. In Two Noble Kinsmen, he notes that “these poore slight sores neede not a plantin,” establishing that plantain was only used for more serious conditions. The literary tradition carried over to the former British colonies with the publication of Longfellow’s Hiawatha. Chapter 21 of the epic poem is entitled “White Man’s Foot” and uses the plantain as metaphor for the beneficence of the “strangers” – “Wheresoe’er they tread, beneath them springs a flower unknown among us, Springs the White Man’s Foot in blossom. Let us welcome, then, the strangers, Hail them as our friends and brothers.”
The appearance of plantain in North America was likely the result of its intentional transplantation by colonists, who doubtless would have considered it necessary to soothe the inevitable bites, stings and wounds attendant to their travails in the New World. White mans foot’s rapid spread was concurrent with the westward expansion of the colonies, and the Indians purportedly assimilated it to their extensive pharmaceutical knowledge of herbal remedies. In addition to the standard uses as a vulnerary for wounds and as a topical application to ease skin irritation, they discovered that it could be used to reduce swelling and inflammation from the bite of a rattlesnake. This is not without precedent, as it had been noted that mongooses used plantain to neutralize the venom of the cobra in South Asia. It has also been reported that the Native Americans chewed plantain to ease the pain of toothache, gave it to young children to strengthen them, and brewed it into a tea to treat diarrhea and other intestinal maladies.
The catholic use of plantain by diverse cultures that span the millennia is testimony to the efficacy and potency of its many constituent chemical compounds. The phytochemical database of Dr. James Duke lists 100 constituents for Plantago major that range from the amino acid adenine to the mineral zinc. Among the more notable constituents are aucubin, a glycoside that has anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties and linolenic acid that affords anti-microbial and anti-hemorrhagic protection. As an edible potherb, plantain offers high levels of calcium, beta carotene (vitamin A) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in addition to the many other constituents that have demonstrative ameliorative properties. It is best when gathered as a young plant and consumed as a salad green, as the leaves become stringy and bitter with age. The seeds are attached to a vertical spike that extends from the center of the rosette of leaves in early summer. They can be readily gathered and either added to foods directly or pulverized to make a nutritious flour.
The use of plantain for medicinal purposes or as a food is stymied by the legitimate if frustrating requirements of the Food and Drug Administration. Plantain did not make the list of Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) additives in the Food Additives amendment of 1958 so that it must pass a rigorous testing regime to validate its efficacy. The only quasi-credentialed effort to evaluate plantain was the German Commission E, a group of scientific experts established in 1978 to evaluate over 300 herbal medicines for (German) public use. The monograph for plantain commends its utilization as a topical application for minor injuries, insect stings and dermatitis and as a treatment for coughs and other irritations to the upper respiratory tract if administered as a syrup or tincture