Scientific Name: Plantago major
Common Name: common plantain
Range: throughout the United States; found in lawns, pastures, meadows, cracks in sidewalks, waste places and disturbed habitats
Origin: native of Europe and temperate parts of Asia
Botanical description: The common plantain has broad, irregularly rounded to oval leaves, 1-6 inches in length that form a basal rosette that is prostrate to
the ground. The leaves have smooth, wavy, or toothed edges; 3 – 11 parallel veins run their length and are large and noticeable. A tall spike of
inconspicuous flowers, then tiny seeds cover the central flower stalk, which stands erect from the center of the basal rosette and can be 3 – 12 inches tall.
This spike of seeds easily identifies common plantain. The round, prominently veined leaves are readily found during all seasons. Plantain is so common in grassy areas that it is likely to be overlooked.
What’s in a name: Plantain’s common name comes from the Latin word planta, which means sole (as in sole of a shoe). Native Americans associated
the plant with the Europeans, who seemed to leave a trail of the alien weed wherever they went, and called it “white man’s foot”.
All in the family: Common plantain is in the same family as Plantago psyllium, the plant whose mucilaginous fiber is the active ingredient in Metamucil and other bulk fiber/laxative products.
In Gaelic, plantain is known as the “healing herb” because it was used in Ireland to treat wounds and bruises. Plantain was hailed by Pliny as a cure for
the “madness of dogs”, and Erasmus claimed it to be an antidote for spider bite toxins. It was also said that if someone was bitten by a mad dog, rubbing
plantain on the bite would heal it. Native Americans used it as an antidote to snakebite venom by rubbing its juices on the wound. It was listed as one of the
nine sacred herbs in Anglo-Saxon medicine because of its healing powers. It was used as a cure for disorders of the kidney, a remedy for worms, a diuretic,
and a cure for hemorrhoids, as well as a laxative.
Current use of plantain is the commercially significant extraction of its mucilage – a carbohydrate fiber that is used in gentle laxatives. Ironically, plantain
infusions can be used to halt diarrhea. Mucilage also acts as an appetite suppressant and reduces intestinal absorption of fat and bile. It reduces LDL
cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood. Plantain is commonly used as an astringent; its juice, when rubbed on an insect bite or bee sting, immediately
sooths the area and begin the healing process. Plantain may also stop poison ivy from blistering and itching if applied to the skin immediately after contact.
Plantain is still considered a diuretic; in addition, it is used as an expectorant and decongestant. It is also thought to sooth the throat and is taken to relieve
laryngitis. Finally, when chewed, plantain acts as a breath freshener. If eaten early enough in the spring, plantain leaves are said to make a tasty cooked vegetable dish.
Active compounds: beta carotene, mucilage, calcium, monoterpene alkaloids, glycosides, sugars, triterpenes, linoleic acid, iridoids, and tannins.
Research: Clinical studies have verified plantain’s astringent properties; research has been conducted into the possible connection between allergic
responses and the inhalation or ingestion of psyllium (see Arlian, Vyszenski-Moher, Lawrence, Schrotel, Ritz; 1992).
In lore, legend and life: Shakespeare referred to plantain in Romeo and Juliet as a cure for a broken shin; he also spoke of it as cure for sores.
Chaucer also made reference to the healing powers of plantain.
Native Americans carried a small bag of powdered plantain root as a charm against snakebite.
Unscrupulous herbalists long ago removed a portion of plantain seeds from the recipe for a salve and planted them instead; the patient then had to return to the herbalist for another dose of the medicine.
Plantain, like dandelion, is a ubiquitous weed that vexes all who wish for a perfect lawn. Left to its own device, plantain can quickly overtake any grassy area.