The Plantains


(This 1163rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 7, 2013.)


Broad-leafed Plantain


When I was a youngster, one of the not-well-received tasks set for me by my parents was weeding our lawn. This was, of course, long before the development and widespread use of herbicides to make our lawns weed-free.


The tools for this task were simple: two rolls of string, four pencil-sized sticks and a vicious-looking screwdriver-like weeder. I would lay out the strings parallel to each other and about a yard apart, anchoring them at the opposite edges of the lawn with those sticks.


Then I would crawl along the outlined pathway digging out the dandelions and plantains with the weeder. Once I had completed one of those sidewalk-width paths, I would move one of the strings and set out to weed the next one.


I had been taught to dig deep to slice off as much of the weed roots as possible in order to prevent them from growing back. I knew that this would not head off the weeds from returning, of course, because seeds would blow in from less well-tended neighbors' yards. In just ten days there would be another crop demanding my attention.


I wonder now how many hours I spent working at that Sisyphean task.


One thing I learned from that irritating and endless job was how to identify the two quite different appearing plantains. Although I rarely see them in lawns or gardens nowadays, I find them often at roadsides and even in deep woods. And every time I do I am refreshed with the knowledge that I no longer have to get down on my hands and knees to dig them out.


It turns out that there are many interesting facts about these two weeds. The one I knew as broad-leafed plantain is better known as common plantain today and the narrow-leafed plantain is now generally called English plantain. There are many other names for these plants, most deriving from earlier European usage: ripplegrass, waybroad, snakeweed, cuckoo's bread, dog's ribs, cart-track plant and rub grass.


Linnaeus gave these two plants their scientific names: plantago major and plantago minor. You can appreciate those binomials he developed when you learn that before Linnaeus simplified matters the first had been referred to as Plantago media incana virginiana, ferrata foulis, annua.


These plants were purposely brought here by early colonists, most notably the Puritans. As a result some Native Americans referred to the broad-leafed plantain as "white man's footprint".


To those early settlers plantains were important. Not only did their young tender leaves serve as greens for salads but their leaves and roots were believed to serve a number of medicinal purposes.


In particular, they substituted for our band-aids to cover wounds. Shakespeare refers to this in Romeo and Juliet with Romeo telling Benvolio that it was useful "For your broken skin." A 1500's compendium extended this use to "wounds of all sorts including dog bites and scorpion stings, black spots, boils and carbuncles."


Early herbals also list dozens of uses of the leaves and roots in various concoctions to rid their bodies of worms and as a treatment for swellings of the lymph gland and kidney disorders, as a diuretic, a laxative and to cure hemorrhoids, epilepsy, excessive bleeding during menstruation, uterine pains, headaches, coughs, fevers, flu, dropsy, falling-sickness, yellow jaundice and sore feet. It was also purported to be good for the eyes, gums and bladder.


It is a temptation to discredit that litany of uses, but we should first understand that people in earlier times did not have access to a local drugstore to fill physicians' prescriptions. Instead they turned to herbalists who relied on these folk remedies, depending on what seemed to work in the past.


But it also turns out that in many of their prescribed uses those early herbalists were on the mark. Plantains contain vitamins A, C, and K as well as anti-microbial and cellular growth agents, and pain and discomfort inhibiters. A compilation in 2000 of contemporary uses based on scientific studies indicates that plantain extract has a wide range of biological effects, including "wound healing, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antioxidant, weak antibiotic, immune-modulating and antiulcerogenic activities."


Unfortunately, many are found along roadsides exposed to noxious chemicals that compromise their positive agents.-- Gerry Rising