Some local plants give us clues about the early colonization of America. Saponaria officinalis, or bouncing bet / Sweet William, is one such species. If you see it in a remote wooded area, often you will also find a foundation indicating an old homestead or ghost town of the Pinelands. Sweet William is a native of Europe and people used it for soap and shampoos, so you can understand the rationale for bringing its seeds to the New World.
Like Sweet William, a number of plants have been introduced to areas purposely, while others have hitched rides in the bilges of boats and in grain shipments or have arrived via sandstorms, across oceans, and through a host of other methods. These are exotics, many of which are invasive and take over at the expense of native species. Some of the better-known undesirable exotics include kudzu, English ivy, Japanese honeysuckle, oriental bittersweet, bamboo, and stilt grass, to name just a few.
Our subject plants for this week tend to aggravate those who strive for the perfectly manicured lawn: These are two local plantains. Common plantain or Plantago major was brought to the New World by the Puritans. In fact the Native Americans called it Englishman’s foot because it is prevalent in areas that are disturbed. Native Americans adopted it for use in their remedies much the way that colonists had in their homelands of Europe.
Its adaptation to compacted soils and its resilience to being trampled have made it important to soil rehabilitation. Not only do its roots break up densely packed earth but it also helps prevent erosion. However, there are native plants that perform the same function.
Common plantain or Plantago major is native to Eurasia. Its leaves are broad and heavily ribbed, with troughlike stems. It flowers from June to October with greenish-white to greenish-brown spikes. To me the flower seems very inconspicuous.
It is an edible plant; the young leaves are eaten raw in salads. But as the plant gets older the leaves become stringier and are more likely to be cut, boiled, and put in stews, if used at all.
Northeastern tribes (e.g., Cherokee) used its leaves in a tea for washing sore eyes. Foster and Duke (see sources) speak of it as a prominent cancer folk cure in Latin America. Grain shipments, especially cereal grains, commonly have plantain seed mixed in and thus it has attained a worldwide distribution. Not surprisingly, it also has worldwide folk medicinal uses. Its antimicrobial properties have been confirmed as stimulating the healing process.
Ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman has compiled a long list of Native American uses for the plant. Poultices made from the leaves of this plant were typically applied to feet for rheumatism and swelling, and also used for burns, dermatological aids, wounds, contusions, coughs, blisters, ulcers, insect stings, gastrointestinal ailments, headaches, snakebites and more—the list seems endless. Most are remedies related to gastrointestinal, dermatological, respiratory, and gynecological problems.
I’m in no way suggesting that you purposely grow our two subject species, common and English plantain, but I think their history and uses should be appreciated, since they’re prevalent and have cultural context.
Both are most commonly found in ordinary lawns and along roadsides. I suspect as a child you may have played with our second subject species, Plantago lanceolata, more commonly called English plantain or narrowleaf plantain. The game involves wrapping the distal stem around the flower’s head and drawing back the stem, causing the flower’s head to snap off and project forward as a harmless projectile. But in a child’s imagination it is a bullet of sorts. I wish life were still that simple for children. Edinburgh Castle’s One O’Clock Gun (see photo on opposite page) has lent its name to this game in Scotland.
The finely toothed leaves of narrow leaf plantain are markedly different than those of common plantain. These are basal leaves in a clustered rosette. They are thin and long; they can flop or be erect. Their flower, or inflorescence, sits atop a single leafless stalk and is shaped like an ovoid spike encircled with tiny flowers or spikelet inflorescence. This plantain is also edible.
Like its relative, it derives from Eurasia. There is evidence of its being present in Europe back to Early Neolithic times—essentially 10,000 B.C.
Narrow leaf also has a rich history of medicinal uses. A number of sources suggest it is the mucilage, silicic acid, and tannin properties of the plants that give them therapeutic properties. The seeds of these herbs have soothing effects. A long list of traditional uses for the plant can be found at www.healthbenefitstimes.com. It has antibacterial properties; taken internally it has been used for diarrhea, gastritis, peptic ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, hemorrhage, hemorrhoids, cystitis, bronchitis, catarrh, sinusitis, asthma, cough, colds, and hayfever. The consumption of the Plantago lanceolata seeds may reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. Externally they have been used for blisters, sores, ulcers, swelling, insect stings, earaches, and eye ailments.
Nutritional values are complex; they are high in calcium, magnesium. and phosphorus. A word of caution: Self-treatment using natural plants has risks, since their chemistry can be strong or can disagree with your system. There is also the risk of misidentification. I share these properties not to promote their use but to provide cultural awareness.
Plantain also supports a number of moths and butterflies. Lepidopterist David Wagner lists common buckeye, giant leopard moth, and orange virbia as species using plantains, further suggesting that those rearing butterflies might include plantain as a food option. Others mention the agreeable tiger moth and Glanville fritillary. The buckeye’s caterpillars ingest the leaves, which contain iridoid glycosides and thus make themselves unpalatable to predators.
(By the way, these plants should not be confused with the plantain species of banana whose name derives from the Spanish word plátano meaning “plane tree” or “banana tree.”)
Maybe after you read this you’ll be inspired to teach a child how to have fun playing One O’Clock Gun, or fire off a shot yourself to remember days gone by!
- Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants, Steven Forster/ James Duke
- Native American Ethnobotany, Daniel E. Moerman
- www.Edinburghcastle.scot – One o’clock Gun
- Funny Weeds for Funny Games. www.davesgarden.com by Adina Dosan, July 20, 2011
- Magic and Medicine of Plants, Reader’s Digest, I. Dobelis, 1986
- Plantago lanceolata – Narrow Leaf Plantain, Washington College
- Caterpillars of Eastern North America, David L. Wagner
- Genetic variation in defensive chemistry in Plantago lanceolata (Plantaginaceae) and its effect on the specialist herbivore Junonia coenia (Nymphalidae). Lynn S. Adler, Johanna Schmitt and M. Deane Bowers, Oecologia, January 1995