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APRIL 2012: COMMON PLANTAIN (Plantago Major)

Plantain Description and Habitat:: The Common Plantain is a very familiar perennial 'weed,' and may be found anywhere by roadsides and in meadow-land. It grows from a very short rhizome which has a large number of long, straight, yellowish roots. Above the rhizome is a large, radial rosette of 4 to 10 inch long smooth leaves and a few long, slender, densely-flowered spikes. These leaves, which are often unevenly toothed have a fibrous structure and five to eleven ribs. The tiny flowers are purplish-green with four stamens and purple anthers. The fruit is a two-celled capsule and contains four to sixteen seeds.

Common Names: Rib Grass, Ripple Grass, Waybread, Slan-lus, Waybroad, Snakeweed, Cuckoo's Bread, Englishman's Foot, White Man's Foot, Pony Tails, Devil’s Shoe String, Buckhorn, Chimney Sweeps, Headsman, Soldier’s Herb, Healing Blade.

Plantain is without doubt the single greatest forgotten herb and is reputed to be one of the nine Anglo Saxon sacred herbs (Mugwort, Watercress, Chamomile, Nettle, Crab Apple, Chervil, Fennel, Plantain and Atterlothe (unknown but thought to be either Deadly Nightshade, Wormwood or Cockspur)). The herbal “Macer Floribus” written in the 9th Century generally gives just a few words on each herb. This in not the case with Plantain which it describes in detail as being used for a wide range of ailments including wounds of all sorts, dog bites, scorpion stings, black spots, boils, carbuncles, swellings of the lymph gland, epilepsy, excessive bleeding during menstruation, uterine pains, headaches, coughs, fevers, flu, and sore feet as well as being good for the eyes, gums, and bladder.

The Anglo Saxons called Plantain “Weybroed” or Waybread as it often grew on trackways. In the Highlands of Scotland, the Plantain is still called 'Slan-lus,' meaning ‘plant of healing’ from a firm belief in its healing virtues. In Scotland it is also called Healing Blade from its use in treating wounds where the leaves were heated and used to staunch blood flow and encourage repair to damaged tissue. In the United States the plant is called 'Snake Weed' from its benefits in treating cases of snake bites and also called “Englishman’s Foot” because it followed the Settlers. Dr. Robinson (New Family Herbal) states that a Native American received a great reward from the Assembly of South Carolina for his discovery that Plantain was 'the chief remedy for the cure of the rattlesnake.'

‘Plantago majo. means literally “main solelike” as the plant’s leaves look like the sole of a shoe and this is also reflected in another North American name of “Devil’s shoe string”.

Medicinal Uses: Plantain has been used as a remedy for cough irritations and hoarseness and for gastritis and enteritis. It has also been used for a range of respiratory problems including bronchitis and asthma and especially those involving mucous congestion. It has been used for diarrhoea, nosebleed, kidney and bladder trouble, jaundice, headache, infections, hepatitis, loss of sexual power, promoting fertility, bedwetting, sciatica, tuberculosis, syphilis, snakebites, worms, toothache, dropsy, blood poisoning and inflamed eyes. A decoction of the dried leaves promotes the coagulation of blood. The fresh juice, pressed from the whole plant, was used for chronic catarrhal problems, hay fever, gastro-intestinal ailments, and worms. Externally, the fresh leaves are crushed for application to eczema, burns, ringworms, shingles, scalds, wounds, running sores, ulcers, cuts, scratches, boils, tumours, insect bites, nettle stings and hemorrhoids. It was also widely used as a laxative, to combat inflammation and to sooth tired feet.

Some of the recipes for ointments in which Plantain is an ingredient have lingered to the present day. Lady Northcote, in The Book of Herbs (1903), mentions an ointment made by an old woman in Exeter that up to her death about twenty years ago was in much request. It was made from Southernwood, Plantain leaves, Black Currant leaves, Elder buds, Angelica and Parsley, chopped, pounded and simmered with clarified butter and was considered most useful for burns or raw surfaces. In fact decoctions of Plantain entered into almost every old remedy, and it was boiled with Docks, Comfrey and a variety of flowers.

Small Birds love the seeds of Plantain and Dr. Withering in his “Arrangement of Plants” states that sheep, goats and swine eat it, but that cows and horses refuse it. Abercrombie, writing in 1822 (Every Man his own Gardener), includes Plantain in his list of forty-four Salad herbs. Salmon's in his Herbal (1710) also tells us that a good cosmetic is made with essence of Plantain, houseleeks and lemon juice. In the Louisiana bayou the dried leaves were put in the linen closet to perfume the contents and keep insects out.

From the days of Chaucer onwards we find reference in literature to the healing powers of Plantain. Gower (1390) says: 'And of Plantaine he hath his herb sovereine,' and Chaucer mentions it in the Prologue of the Chanounes Yeman. Shakespeare, both in Love's Labour's Lost, iii, i, and in Romeo and Juliet, I, ii, speaks of the 'plain Plantain' and 'Plantain leaf' as excellent for a broken shin, and again in Two Noble Kinsmen, I, ii: 'These poore slight sores neede not a Plantin.' His reference to it in Troilus and Cressida, III. ii: 'As true as steel, as Plantage to the moon,' is an allusion that is now no longer clear to us. Again, Shenstone in the Schoolmistress: 'And plantain rubb'd that heals the reaper's wound.'

In the olden days, when people flocked to the countryside to gather wild herbs for spring tonic, plantain was one of the favorites. A woman from Tennessee stated that the best wild greens were mustard and plantain greens cooked with a ham hock or bacon fat for seasoning. The seeds are rich in Vitamin B1 and can be ground into a meal, mixed with flour and used like sago. The dried leaves make a passable tea.

Apparently gypsies of Eastern Europe made a hemorrhoid cream of lard, plantain, and ground ivy while the Maori of New Zealand treated the same problem by placing the plant in a steaming pot of water and hanging the afflicted part over the pot!

Folklore: Take two flowering stems, wrap them in a dock leaf and place under a stone overnight. True love will be found if new flowers have appeared in the morning. Bind plantain to the forehead with red wool and it will cure a headache. Many cultures view Plantain as an aphrodisiac!

Last Updated on Tuesday, 08 May 2012 13:23  



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