Summer of Weeds: Plantains

This is a revised version of two ethnobotany posts that appeared previously on Awkward Botany: White Man’s Foot, part one and part two. Plantains have a long history of ethnobotonical uses, as well as a bad reputation of being pesky, hard-to-eliminate weeds. The two most common introduced plantain species in North America are broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) and lanceleaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata). Wherever our daily travels take us, chances are there is a plantain growing nearby.

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Plantago major is in the plantain family (Plantaginaceae) a family that consists of at least 90 genera, including common ornamental plants like Veronica (speedwells), Digitalis (foxgloves), and Antirrhinum (snapdragons). The genus Plantago, commonly known as plantains, consists of around 200 species distributed throughout the world in diverse habitats. Most of them are herbaceous perennials with similar growth habits.

Originating in Eurasia, P. major now has a cosmopolitan distribution. It has joined humans as they have traveled and migrated from continent to continent and is now considered naturalized throughout most temperate and some tropical regions. P. major has a plethora of common names – common plantain being the one that the USDA prefers. Other names include broadleaf plantain, greater plantain, thickleaf plantain, ribgrass, ribwort, ripplegrass, and waybread. Depending on the source, there are various versions of the name white man’s foot. Along the same line, a common name for P. major in South Africa is cart-track plant.

common plantain (Plantago major)

Common plantain starts by forming a rosette of broad leaves usually oriented flat against the ground. The leaves are egg-shaped with parallel veins; occasionally, leaf margins are faintly toothed. The inflorescence is a leafless spike up to 20 centimeters tall or taller with several tiny flowers that are a dull yellow-green-brown color. The flowers are wind pollinated and highly prone to self-pollination. The fruits are capsules that can contain as many as 30 seeds; an entire plant can produce as many as 15,000 seeds. The seeds are small, brown, sticky, and easily transported by wind or by adhering to shoes, clothing, animals, and machinery. They require light to germinate and can remain viable for up to 60 years.

Common plantain prefers sunny sites but can also thrive in part shade. It adapts to a variety of soil types but performs best in moist, clay-loam soils. It is often found in compacted soils and is very tolerant of trampling. This trait, along with its low-growing leaves that easily evade mower blades, explains why it is so common in turf grass. It is highly adaptable to a variety of habitats and is particularly common on recently disturbed sites (both natural and human caused). It is an abundant urban and agricultural weed.

Illustration of three Plantago species from Selected Weeds of the United States (Agriculture Handbook No. 366) circa 1970

Even though it is wind pollinated, its flowers are visited by syrphid flies and various bee species which feed on its pollen. Several other insects feed on its foliage, along with a number of mammalian herbivores. Cardinals and other bird species feed on its seeds.

Humans also eat plantain leaves, which contain vitamins A, C, and K. Young, tender leaves can be eaten raw, while older leaves need to be cooked as they become tough and stringy with age. The medicinal properties of  P. major have been known and appreciated at least as far back as the Anglo-Saxons, who likely used a poultice made from the leaves externally to treat wounds, burns, sores, bites, stings, and other irritations. It has also been used to stop cuts from bleeding and to treat rattlesnake bites. Apart from external uses, the plant was used internally as a pain killer and to treat ulcers, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal issues.

P. major has been shown to have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and other biological properties; several chemical compounds have been isolated from the plant and deemed responsible for these properties. It is for this reason that P. major and other Plantago species have been used to treat such a diverse number of ailments. The claims are extensive and worth exploring. You can start by visiting the following sites:

Excerpts about plantains from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

Concerning their cosmopolitan nature: “Although both plantains [P. major and P. lanceolata] are Eurasian natives, they have long been thoroughly naturalized global residents; the designation ‘alien’ applies to them in the same sense that all white and black Americans are alien residents.”

In which I learned a new term: “Both species are anthropophilic (associate with humans); they frequent roadsides, parking areas, driveways, and vacant lots, occurring almost everywhere in disturbed ground. Where one species grows, the other can often be found nearby.”

Illustration by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

Medicinal and culinary uses according to Eastman: “Plantains have versatile curative as well as culinary properties; nobody need go hungry or untreated for sores where plantains grow. These plants contain an abundance of beta carotene, calcium, potassium, and ascorbic acid. Cure-all claims for common plantain’s beneficial medical uses include a leaf tea for coughs, diarrhea, dysentery, lung and stomach disorders, and the root tea as a mouthwash for toothache. … Their most frequent and demonstrably effective use as a modern herb remedy, however, is as a leaf poultice for insect bites and stings plus other skin irritations. The leaf’s antimicrobial properties reduce inflammation, and its astringent chemistry relieves itching, swelling, and soreness.”

Even the seeds are “therapeutic”: “The gelatinous mucilage surrounding seeds can be readily separated, has been used as a substitute for linseed oil. Its widest usage is in laxative products for providing bulk and soluble fiber called psyllium, mainly derived from the plantain species P. ovata and leafy-stemmed plantain (P. psyllium), both Mediterranean natives.”

An excerpt from Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey

“Plantain, ‘the mother of worts,’ is present in almost all the early prescriptions of magical herbs, back as far as the earliest Celtic fire ceremonies. It isn’t clear why such a drab plant – a plain rosette of grey-green leaves topped by a flower spike like a rat’s-tail – should have had pre-eminent status. But its weediness, in the sense of its willingness to tolerate human company, may have had a lot to do with it. The Anglo-Saxon names ‘Waybroad’ or ‘Waybread’ simply mean ‘a broad-leaved herb which grows by the wayside.’ This is plantain’s defining habit and habitat. It thrives on roadways, field-paths, church steps. In the most literal sense it dogs human footsteps. Its tough, elastic leaves, growing flush with the ground, are resilient to treading. You can walk on them, scuff them, even drive over them, and they go on living. They seem to actively prosper from stamping, as more delicate plants around them are crushed. The principles of sympathetic magic, therefore, indicated that plantain would be effective for crushing and tearing injuries. (And so it is, to a certain extent. The leaves contain a high proportion of tannins, which help to close wounds and halt bleeding.)”

Ethnobotany: White Man’s Foot, part two

Earlier this year, as part of the ethnobotany series, I wrote about plantains (Plantago spp.), of which at least one species is commonly referred to as white man’s foot (or some version of that). Since writing that post, I happened upon a couple of other sources that had interesting and informative things to say about plantains. Rather than go back and update the original post, I decided to make a part two. Hopefully, you find this as interesting as I do. If nothing else, the sources themselves are worth checking out for the additional, fascinating information they contain about all sorts of plants.

plantago_boise capitol building

From The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

Concerning their cosmopolitan nature: “Although both plantains [P. major and P. lanceolata] are Eurasian natives, they have long been thoroughly naturalized global residents; the designation ‘alien’ applies to them in the same sense that all white and black Americans are alien residents.”

In which I learned a new term: “Both species are anthropophilic (associate with humans); they frequent roadsides, parking areas, driveways, and vacant lots, occurring almost everywhere in disturbed ground. Where one species grows, the other can often be found nearby.”

Medicinal and culinary uses according to Eastman: “Plantains have versatile curative as well as culinary properties; nobody need go hungry or untreated for sores where plantains grow. These plants contain an abundance of beta carotene, calcium, potassium, and ascorbic acid. Cure-all claims for common plantain’s beneficial medical uses include a leaf tea for coughs, diarrhea, dysentery, lung and stomach disorders, and the root tea as a mouthwash for toothache. … Their most frequent and demonstrably effective use as a modern herb remedy, however, is as a leaf poultice for insect bites and stings plus other skin irritations. The leaf’s antimicrobial properties reduce inflammation, and its astringent chemistry relieves itching, swelling, and soreness.”

Even the seeds are “therapeutic”: “The gelatinous mucilage surrounding seeds can be readily separated, has been used as a substitute for linseed oil. Its widest usage is in laxative products for providing bulk and soluble fiber called psyllium, mainly derived from the plantain species P. ovata and leafy-stemmed plantain (P. psyllium), both Mediterranean natives.”

Plantain’s “cure-all reputation continues” today: Claims range from a homeopathic cancer remedy to a stop-smoking aid, “supposedly causing tobacco aversion.”

Claims of the healing properties of plantains abound in literature: “John the Baptist, in the lore of the saints, used it as a healing herb; Anglo Saxon gardeners called it the ‘mother of herbs.’ Plantain is ‘in the command of Venus and cures the head by antipathy to Mars,’ according to 17th century English herbalist-astrologist Nicholas Culpeper. Plantains also bear frequent mention in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare.”

The worst thing plantains have to offer according to Eastman: “the airborne pollen they shed in large amounts, contributing to many hay fever allergies.”

Illustration by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

Illustration by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

From Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey

Mabey’s too-good-to-paraphrase overview of plantain: “Plantain, ‘the mother or worts,’ is present in almost all the early prescriptions of magical herbs, back as far as the earliest Celtic fire ceremonies. It isn’t clear why such a drab plant – a plain rosette of grey-green leaves topped by a flower spike like a rat’s-tail – should have had pre-eminent status. But its weediness, in the sense of its willingness to tolerate human company, may have had a lot to do with it. The Anglo-Saxon names ‘Waybroad’ or ‘Waybread’ simply mean ‘a broad-leaved herb which grows by the wayside.’ This is plantain’s defining habit and habitat. It thrives on roadways, field-paths, church steps. In the most literal sense it dogs human footsteps. Its tough, elastic leaves, growing flush with the ground, are resilient to treading. You can walk on them, scuff them, even drive over them, and they go on living. They seem to actively prosper from stamping, as more delicate plants around them are crushed. The principles of sympathetic magic, therefore, indicated that plantain would be effective for crushing and tearing injuries. (And so it is, to a certain extent. The leaves contain a high proportion of tannins, which help to close wounds and halt bleeding.)”

On the inclusion of plantains in Midsummer’s Eve rituals: “On Midsummer’s Eve, great bonfires were lit in the countryside, and bundles of wild herbs thrown on them. Most of the plants were agricultural weeds, including St. John’s-wort, corn marigold, corn poppy, mayweed, mugwort, ragwort, plantain, and vervain.”

More about Midsummer’s Eve and the “future-foretelling powers” of this “divination herb, stretching sight into the future”: “On Midsummer’s Eve in Berwickshire, the flowering stems were employed by young women in a charm which would predict whether they would fall in love. It was a delicate, almost erotic process in which the sexual organs of the plantain were used as symbolic indicators. Two of the ‘rat’s-tail’ flowering spikes were picked, and any visible purple anthers removed. The two spikes were wrapped in a dock leaf and placed under a stone. If, by the next day, more anthers had risen erect from the flowering spikes, loves was imminent.”

"Greater - or 'ratstail' - plantain had by this time been nicknamed 'Englishman's foot' by the Native Americans, who had witnessed its prodigious advance in the white man's wake." - Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unwanted Plants

“Greater – or ‘ratstail’ – plantain had by this time been nicknamed ‘Englishman’s foot’ by the Native Americans, who had witnessed its prodigious advance in the white man’s wake.” – Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unwanted Plants

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Ethnobotany: White Man’s Foot, part one

“Plantains – Plantago major – seem to have arrived with the very first white settlers and were such a reliable sign of their presence that the Native Americans referred to them as ‘white men’s footsteps.'” – Elizabeth Kolbert (The Sixth Extinction)

“Our people have a name for this round-leafed plant: White Man’s Footstep. Just a low circle of leaves, pressed close to the ground with no stem to speak of, it arrived with the first settlers and followed them everywhere they went. It trotted along paths through the woods, along wagon roads and railroads, like a faithful dog so as to be near them.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer (Braiding Sweetgrass)

photo credits: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Plantago major is in the family Plantaginaceae – the plantain family – a family that consists of at least 90 genera, several of which include common species of ornamental plants such as Veronica (speedwells), Digitalis (foxgloves), and Antirrhinum (snapdragons). The genus Plantago consists of around 200 species commonly known as plantains. They are distributed throughout the world in diverse habitats. Most of them are herbaceous perennials with similar growth habits, and many have ethnobotanical uses comparable to P. major.

Originating in Eurasia, P. major now has a cosmopolitan distribution. It has joined humans as they have traveled and migrated from continent to continent and is now considered naturalized throughout most temperate and some tropical regions. In North America, P. major and P. lanceolata are the two most common introduced species in the Plantago genus. P. major has a plethora of common names – common plantain being the one that the USDA prefers. Other names include broadleaf plantain, greater plantain, thickleaf plantain, ribgrass, ribwort, ripplegrass, and waybread. Depending on the source, there are various versions of the name white man’s foot, and along the same line, a common name for P. major in South Africa is cart-track plant.

P. major is a perennial – albeit sometimes annual or biennial – herbaceous plant. Its leaves form a rosette that is usually oriented flat against the ground and reaches up to 30 cm wide. Each leaf is egg-shaped with parallel veins and leaf margins that are sometimes faintly toothed. The inflorescence is a leafless spike up to 20 cm tall (sometimes taller) with several tiny flowers that are a dull yellow-green-brown color. The flowers are wind pollinated, and the plants are highly prone to self-pollination. The fruits are capsules that can contain as many as 30 seeds – an entire plant can produce as many as 14,000 – 15,000 seeds at once. The seeds are small, brown, sticky, and easily transported by wind or by adhering to shoes, clothing, animals, and machinery. They require light to germinate and can remain viable for up to 60 years.

An illustration of three Plantago species found in Selected Weeds of the United States - Agriculture Handbook No. 366 circa 1970

An illustration of three Plantago species found in Selected Weeds of the United States – Agriculture Handbook No. 366 circa 1970

P. major prefers sunny sites but can also thrive in part shade. It adapts to a variety of soil types but performs best in moist, clay-loam soils. It is often found in compacted soils and is very tolerant of trampling. This trait, along with its low-growing leaves that easily evade mower blades, explains why it is so commonly seen in turf grass. It is highly adaptable to a variety of habitats and is particularly common on recently disturbed sites (natural or human caused) and is an abundant urban and agricultural weed.

Even though it is wind pollinated, its flowers are visited by syrphid flies and various bee species which feed on its pollen. Several other insects feed on its foliage, along with a number of mammalian herbivores. Cardinals and other bird species feed on its seeds.

Humans also eat plantain leaves, which contain vitamins A, C, and K. Young, tender leaves can be eaten raw, while older leaves need to be cooked as they become tough and stringy with age. The medicinal properties of  P. major have been known and appreciated at least as far back as the Anglo-Saxons, who likely used a poultice made from the leaves externally to treat wounds, burns, sores, bites, stings, and other irritations. Native Americans, after seeing the plant arrive with European settlers, quickly learned to use the plant as food and medicine. It could be used to stop cuts from bleeding and to treat rattlesnake bites. Apart from external uses, the plant was used internally as a pain killer and to treat ulcers, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal issues.

P. major has been shown to have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and other biological properties; several chemical compounds have been isolated from the plant and deemed responsible for these properties. For this reason, P. major and other species of Plantago have been used to treat a number of ailments. The claims are so numerous and diverse that it is worth exploring if you are interested. You can start by visiting the following sites:

"White man's footstep, generous and healing, grows with its leaves so close to the ground that each step is a greeting to Mother Earth." - Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (photo credit: www.eol.org)

“White man’s footstep, generous and healing, grows with its leaves so close to the ground that each step is a greeting to Mother Earth.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Other Ethnobotany Posts on Awkward Botany: