“The world is not to be put in order, the world is order incarnate.
It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order,” Henry Miller (Utterback pg 56).
Our idea of what is a weed and what is not needs to be “put in order”. We need to understand that a weed is just a plant we don’t know how to use or perhaps one growing in the wrong place.
Plantain has been known by many names throughout its history, band aid plant, Breitwegerich (German), broad-leaved plantain, beside cart grass (Chinese in Hawaii), buckhorn plantain, Che Qian Zi (China), common plantain, cuckoo’s bread, devil’s shoestring, dog’s ribs, dooryard plantain, Englishman’s foot, hock cockle, kemp (Danish), lance-leaved plantain, Llanten comun and L. major (Spanish), pig’s ear, Plantain lanceole (France), plantane (Older English), Podoroshnik (Russian for near or along the road), ribwort, round leafed plantain, rubgrass, slan-lus (Scottish), snakeweed, Spitzwegeric (Germany), Tanchagem-maior (Portuguese), waybread, waybroad, weybroed (Anglo-Saxon), and white man’s foot.
Nicholas Culpeper listed plantain in his herbal printed in 1652, The English Physitian. Today it is titled Culpeper’s Herbal and is still among one of the most popular books written in English. Even back at that time plantain was a well-known plant. Culpeper stated, “This groweth so familiarly in meadows and fields, and by pathways, and is so well known that it needeth no description.” (Thulesius pg. 51).
Nicholas Culpepper gave this information on plantain.
The clarified juice drank for a few days helps excoriations or pains in the bowels, and distillations, of rheum from the head. It stays all manner of fluxes, even women’s courses, when too abundant, and staunches the too free bleeding of wounds.
The seed is profitable against dropsey, falling-sickness, yellow jaundice and stoppings of the liver and reins. The juice, or distilled water, dropped into the eyes cools inflammation in them. The juice mixed with Oil of Roses and the temples and forehead anointed with it, eases pains in the head proceeding from heat. It can also be profitably applied to all hot gouts in the hands and feet. It is also good to apply to bones out of joint, to hinder inflammations, swellings and pains that presently rise thereupon.
The dried and powdered leaves taken in drink kills worms of the belly; boiled in wine, it kills worms which breed in old and foul ulcers. One part of the herb water and two parts 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. (Broad-leaved Plantain, p.2)
Plantain though was in use long before Culpeper’s time. The Ancient Persians and the Ancient Arabians used this herb for dysentery. They also favored it for use with all stomach and intestinal problems.
Alexander the Great (356 B.C.-323 B.C.) used plantain to cure his headaches. Pedanius Dioscorides, (40 BC-90BC), was a Greek born in what is today Turkey but at his time it was part of the Roman Empire. He studied medicine in Egypt and was a physician in the Roman Army.
He used plantain for its soothing, cooling, healing and softening properties.
To save someone bitten by a mad dog, Pliny the Roman (23 A.D.-79 A.D.) would use plantain. He also states “on high authority, [that if] it be put into a pot where many pieces of flesh are boiling, it will sodden them together.” (Herb a Day, p. 3) Early Christians considered plantain a symbol for the well-trodden path of the multitude who followed Christ.
In ancient India when the mongoose fought against a cobra, it was noticed that if bitten, the mongoose would use plantain to neutralize the venom.
The Anglo-Saxons (450 A.D. to 1066 A.D.) listed plantain as one of their 9 sacred herbs. They considered that it had great healing powers. They used it for ridding their bodies of worms, as a cure for kidney disorders, a diuretic, a laxative and to cure hemorrhoids. They also used it in a salve for “flying venom.” The salve included hammer wort, chamomile, plantain, water dock roots, honey and butter.
The Macer Floridus (I found 3 possible dates for the writing of it, 9th and 11th century and the 1500's), was read by Douglas Schar who puts it into his words stating:
I noticed that the author rarely has much more than a few words to say on each plant. Plantain is a different matter. According to this volume, the plant can be sued for: wounds of all sorts including dog bites and 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. It is also good for the eyes, gums, and bladder. The list goes on, and on, and on. (Schar, p.1)
Desiderius Erasmus, (1466-1536) a classical scholar, stated that plantain was an antidote for the toxins of poisonous spiders. In Ireland plantain is known as the “healing herb” in Gaelic because they used it to heal wounds and bruises. One use of plantain came about because of the way it looked. The flower spikes suggested that it be used for virility.
King Henry the VIII, (1491-1547) was an amateur in medicine and loved to dabble in it, giving advice to others. The British Museum has his collection of 114 favorite recipes, written in his own hand. He used plantain as one of his basic herbs.
Geoffrey Chaucer referenced the healing power of plantain in his works as did William Shakespeare, (1564-1616) who spoke of plantain in his plays, “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (iii,i), “Two Noble Kinsmen” (I,ii) and “Romeo and Juliet” . From Romeo and Juliet “Radish, Raphanus sativus Romeo. Your Plantain leaf is excellent for that, Benvolio. For what, I pray thee, Romeo? For your broken skin.” (American Botanical Council, pp. 11-12) Shenstone also mentions plantain in his play “The Schoolmistress.” It goes like this, “And plantain rubb’d that heals the reaper’s wound.” (Plantago major, plantain, common p.5)
As ‘chemical’ surgeons began to come forth in the 1500s they still kept their plants. In fact, they used the plants to counteract the corrosive or irritating effects of their minerals. Plantain was one of the plants that would cool and sooth the system.
Dr. Herman Boerhaave, (1668-1738), a Dutch physician and botanist suggested that plantain leaves bound to your aching feet would relieve their pain and help you endure the fatigue of long hikes. In 1710 Salmon’s “Herbal” mentions using plantain for many ailment including the throat, glands and the lungs. It states that it is good for epilepsy, dropsy, jaundice and obstruction of the liver and spleen. It is listed as cooling inflammations in the eyes and reducing the pain in them. It will also ease ear, tooth, and head aches.
Native Americans were already using many herbs to care for themselves when the Europeans arrived. One of their beliefs shares their feelings about being a part of the earth.
The Earth does not
belong to Man.
Man belongs to the Earth.
All things are connected like the blood
which unites a family.
Man does not weave the web of life,
he is only a strand of it.
Whatever happens to the Earth,
happens to all of us.
Whatever Man does to the web of
life on Earth,
He does to himself.
Native Americans embraced this plant after it was brought over by the English. They called it “white man’s footsteps” since it seemed to grow wherever the white men went. The Shoshone would mix one part plantain with one part clematis bracts for wounds, bruises, boils and to reduce the swelling of rheumatic pains. They would also heat the leaves and place them on wounds. Plantain was also used with yarrow to stop hemorrhages of the lungs and bowels. The story has come down that the Assembly of South Carolina gave a reward to the Native American who discovered that plantain would cure the bite of a rattlesnake.
The Native Americans chewed the roots of plantain to ease the pain of toothaches. The Cherokee also used plantain. They gave it to children who were learning to walk to strengthen them. The Delawares used it for the “summer complaint” or diarrhea. Native Americans used a combination of yellow dock, cramp bark, yarrow, milkweed, plantain, organic tobacco and tansy in a tea. A second tea used with it was made from alfalfa seed, blessed thistle and golden seal root. These were used as a four day diet for hard and fungus tumors.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, (1807-1882) wrote about plantain in “Hiawatha”. In fact chapter 21 is titled “White Man’s Foot” a section goes like this:
Gitche Manito, the Mighty, The Great Spirit, the Creator, Sends them hither on his errand. Sends them to us with his message. Wheresoe'er they move, before them Swarms the stinging fly, the Ahmo, Swarms the bee, the honey-maker; 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, And the heart's right hand of friendship Give them when they come to see us. Gitche Manito, the Mighty, Said this to me in my vision. (Longfellow p.6)
An interesting side note is that the natives of New Zealand came up with a name that was almost the same, “Englishman’s foot”. They used the boiled leaves for ulcers. The upper side was used to draw the wound and they used the lower side to aid in the healing. Nothing was wasted. The water that the plantain was boiled in was used for scalds and burns. They also drank it as a uterine stimulant.
In China the plant has been used for rheumatism, diarrhea, infertility and urinary tract infections. They feel that it helps with problem deliveries and also with a healthier childbirth in general. In the Materia Medica it mentions a study in China of women who fetuses were not positioned correctly for birth. The use of plantain reversed the position 90% of these fetuses for correct delivery. (Schar, p. 3)
The juice of plantain was used to soothe abused feet, lessen the pain of hemorrhoids and insect bites by the Pennsylvania Dutch. They also discovered it was good for getting rid of worms in the intenstines. In the bayou of Louisiana plantain was used to help sores heal. Dried leaves were in linen closets to perfume the linens (although dried plantain doesn’t smell bad I haven’t noticed a perfume like smell). It also was suppose to keep insects out of the linens.
In 1903 Lady Northcote mentioned in her book, “The Book of Herbs” that an old woman had an ointment that was often used. It included plantain leaves, Southernwood, black currant leaves, elder buds, angelica and parsley. They were chopped and pounded then simmered with clarified butter. She used it for people who had burns or raw surfaces. Lady Northcote also included her own recipe with Celandine, Elder buds, houseleek and plantain. Many of the old remedies included plantain. Ones for kidney disorders, splitting of blood and for piles. It was used in diuretics and to destroy worms.
Plantain used to be used commonly in the United States but during the switch over from rural to urban life most Americans forgot about it. It only took three generations for this wonderful herb to be lost. Rural Americans turned to doctors and their “miracle cures” instead. Many people step on it or over it or even curse it, not understanding it is loaded with nutrition and is important medically.
In 1958 the Food Additives amendment was passed and many additives and ingredients were exempt from the new testing requirements because of their history of long, safe use. Many herbs made this list, Generally Recognized as Safe or GRAS, but plantain did not and so was not supposed to be sold for food or drug use. Americans stepped up to the bat and today the use of herbs is on a more solid footing, but herbal practitioners are bucking big business and must be ever vigilant.
Dr. John Christopher, (1909-1983), chose plantain to represent the Alterative Herb group in his newsletter, volume 1 number 3. In his book “School of Natural Healing” he states that plantain is the best herb for blood poisoning.
Today researchers have proven that many of the old uses of plantain have a good scientific base. Germany’s official herbal “FDA” organization is the German Commission E. This group provides research on many herbs. Plantain research shows that it is a good choice for wound healing and as a treatment for lung conditions, including bronchitis, asthma, coughs, mucous membrane irritations, upper respiratory infections. Research has also shown that it is valuable used topically for skin problems.
The Chinese have also done research on plantain. Their studies show that plantain does stop diarrhea in children. The research also shows that this herb is helpful for some of the areas they use it for, including childbirth. Research has also been done by another Asian country, Burma. The Burmese use it to treat blood pressure, sores and fevers for the tropics. Their research shows that plantain in water or alcohol extracts drops arterial pressure in dogs and treats stomach problems. Their research points toward its use with ulcers and increasing the secretion of gastric juices. It also reduces intestinal contractions.