P l a n t a g o major

Common weeds of footpaths and lawns, the plantains were once celebrated as magical herbs in pre-Christian times, and have followed European settlers around the world.

Plantain is the best first-aid remedy for insect stings, and quickly deals with bites, cuts, and ulcers. It is widely available, safe to use and effective for a number of common ailments including old coughs, bronchitis, sore throats and irritable digestive tracts.

Plantaginaceae Plantain family

Description: Perennial plants with a rosette of ribbed leaves and wind-pollinated flowers on erect stalks.

Habitat: Footpaths, roadsides, waste ground, meadows, and lawns.

Species used: Greater plantain (P. major) and ribwort or narrowleaf plantain (P. lanceolata) are the main species used medicinally.

Distribution: Ribwort and greater plantain are found virtually everywhere with a temperate climate.

Related species: Buckshorn plantain (P. coronopus) is grown in Italy as a salad crop. There are around 250 species in the Plantago genus worldwide. Many of them have similar medicinal properties.

Parts used: Leaves, seeds, sometimes root.

Plantain is a plant now regarded primarily as a weed except by herbalists, but it had an illustrious past, being one of nine sacred herbs of the Anglo-Saxons, a "mother of worts." It had a reputation for clearing poisons, from bites as well as infections.

Plantains are found almost anywhere there is human habitation, though they have never had an economic value. Greater plantain in particular grows by preference on the compacted soils of paths and tracks, and seems to thrive on being downtrodden.

To Native Americans this plant became "white man's footprint", one that sprang up in the footsteps of the settlers. The plant's name Plantago itself comes from planta or sole of the foot.

The Anglo-Saxon name of plantain was waybroed or waybrode, later "waybread", because it grew by the way or path rather than because it made wonderful eating.

Plantains are familiar "weeds" in any lawn, and will return, even when cut often and short. The young leaves have a slightly bitter flavor from tannins, and though quite tough can be eaten in salads or as a spinach. They become bitter and more fibrous as they age. Buckshorn plantain is grown as a perennial salad crop in Italy and other parts of Europe.

Children all over the world use the flower heads of ribwort, as seen in the photo on the opposite page, as a sort of natural pop gun in the game "soldiers" or "kemps."

In Europe a piece of plantain root used to be carried in the pocket to protect against snakebite, but was no doubt more effective when actually applied to the wound as well as being ingested. The North American name snakeweed is an echo of that time.

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