Plantain puts its best foot forward

Cropping up in compacted turf and in sidewalk cracks, no plant is as ubiquitous as the dwarf plantain (Plantago major). It stands out with its broad, shiny banana-like leaves that grow in a flattened rosette, which if not mowed down repeatedly will send up a slender flower spike in July. Perhaps undeservedly called a weed, possibly no other plant has quite so many practical uses. References to the plant’s association with feet are rife. Plantain’s Latin name means “sole of the foot.” Called “Englishman’s foot” elsewhere in the world because of its tendency to appear wherever British colonists did, it was dubbed “white man’s foot” in the New World by Native Americans who noted that it tended to pop up wherever the new arrivals went. It is thought to have traveled here via soil lodged in horses’ hooves.

Despite the tetchy nickname, indigenous peoples quickly adopted the plant for its medicinal function, much as cultures have around the world for thousands of years. Such a panacea was this plant that ancient Saxons honored it as one of their nine sacred herbs. Plantain was most commonly employed to treat — you guessed it — feet swollen from travel, but also from other external inflammatory ailments like insect stings or skin ulcers. Hikers, try soothing your feet after a long march by wrapping them in plantain leaves.

Other traditional uses for plantain include treatment of dysentery, hemorrhoids, diarrhea, fever, tuberculosis and cholera. Modern chemical analysis has found that the leaves are indeed loaded with beneficial and antibacterial compounds, and several experiments have indicated that it can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol.

So next time you’re tempted to rip out plantain and just throw it away — chew up a leaf and put it on an agonizing mosquito bite. You might come to view it as a valuable addition to the landscape instead of a mere weed.

Nature Note for 8/3/14