Great Plantain

(Plantago major) There is a well-known legend describing the persistent way that Great Plantain follows the tracks of man. More specifically, one superstition says that it follows Englishmen, and springs up in whatever part of the world he makes his home (Leyel. 1926). In this case, "White Man's Foot", which is what the native Americans called the plant (see Longfellow's Hiawatha), becomes Englishman's Foot. The German story is that it was once a woman, who waited by the wayside for her lover (Grimm). But once in seven years it becomes a bird, either the cuckoo, or the cuckoo's servant, the "dinnick" (Devonshire) (wryneck, according to Swainson), or, in German, Wiedhopf (which must be the hoopoe), which follows its master everywhere (Dyer. 1889). Plantago, and so 'plantain', is derived from Latin planta, the sole of the foot.

The belief that a coal was to be found under mugwort on St John's Day was extended to the plantain. Aubrey mentions that he saw young women looking for this coal on St John's Day, 1694, so that they could put it under their pillows to dream of their future husbands.

On St John's Day in Shetland, two stems were picked, one for the boy, and one for the girl, to foretell if they would love and marry (Grigson. 1955). The procedure was to pick the florets and then lay the heads under a flat stone. If the florets re-appeared before the heads withered, they would be sure to marry (Marwick). The Shetland names Johnsmas Pairs and Johnsmas Flowers refer to this practice. In Berwickshire, the divination was performed by removing all the visible anthers, wrapping the two scapes in a dock-leaf, and putting them under a stone till the next day. Then if more anthers have appeared, love is certain (Grigson. 1955). These are too close to the Ribwort Plantain divinations to be sure this particular plantain is meant.

In France, it is one of the more important herbs of St John. In some places, it has the power of disordering the wits, like fern-seed. It was believed in some parts that toads cured themselves of their ills, specifically, spider's stings (Berdoe), by eating the plantain. Another odd superstition was recorded in Iowa - pull a plantain leaf and the number of ribs shows the number of lies told during the day (Stout).

The leaves contain a mucilage that affords rapid relief after the stings of wasps and mosquitoes (Clair), and they can be applied to burns and scalds, too (A W Hatfield). In Somerset, they even say you could treat rheumatism by getting bees to sting you, and using the plantain leaves to ease the stings (Tongue. 1965). Some American Indian groups made poultices of the leaves to reduce swellings, to bring boils to a head, or to draw out thorns and splinters (Sanford), the kind of usage that is almost universal, for that virtue of the leaves has always been well-known.

The Anglo-Saxon version of Apuleius has cures ranging from headaches to snake-bites (Cockayne). In the latter case, the patient was advised to eat the plant! But native American peoples in general agreed with the European verdict; the Ojibwe, for instance, actually carried plantain about with them for immediate emergency protection (Densmore). Mad-dog bite was also dealt with by "rubbing (plantain) fine and lay it on" (Cockayne). In the 15th century the prescription was to make a plaster of this plant and the white of an egg, and laying that on the bite (Dawson. 1934). The Welsh text known as the Physicians of Myddfai also had a prescription for mad-dog bite, in this case using a handful of sheep's sorrel (Rumex acetosella) as well as the plantain, well pounded in a mortar with the white of an egg, honey and lard, to make an ointment to put on the bite. It is a wound herb, too, effective simply by laying the leaves on the wound (Leask, Egan, V G Hatfield), or sometimes they are mashed up and put on, to stop the bleeding. Hence names like Healing Blade, or Healing Leaf (Britten & Holland).

Another of the Anglo-Saxon prescriptions was that "if a man's feet in a journey swell, take then waybread the wort (Great Plantain, that is), pound in vinegar, bathe the feet therewith, and smear them" (Cockayne). More recent practice is simpler. In Scotland, the plantain was used just by putting the leaves under the foot, or inside the stocking (Browning). There are some very strange ailments in the Anglo-Saxon Apuleius, as "in case that a man be ill-grown in wamb", or "in case one wishes to make a man's wamb dwindle" (and who does not?). What does "in case a man's body be hardened" mean? Or, "in case a spreading wart wax on a man's nose or cheek", or "of all strange bladders that sit on a man's face"?

Gerard listed many ailments to be treated with Great Plantain ("of all the plantains the greatest is the best ..."). Among them, "... fluxes, issues, rheumes, and rottennesse, and for the bloudy flux", which is dysentery, and it is still used in Chinese herbal medicine for that complaint (Chinese medicinal herbs of Hong Kong), and plantain tea is still being recommended for diarrhoea (A W Hatfield). Jaundice is another ailment to be cured with plantain in modern times, but which had already appeared in a much earlier age. The treatment was known in folk medicine, in this case, in Cambridgeshire (Porter. 1969), but undoubtedly over a much wider area as well. The tea is still used for complaints as different as piles and asthma (A W Hatfield), and bronchitis can also be treated in this way. A leaf poultice was used for corns and ulcers (Vickery. 1995), and boils too (Stout), but that is a very old recipe - Reliquae Antiquae has "take the rotes of red nettilles and playntayne, and stamp them wele in ale, and do thereto cray [chalk] that hir parchemeners [paper-makers] wirkes withall, and ger hym drynk hit" (see I B Jones). But the list of ailments for which this remarkable plant has been recommended seems endless. Only a few have been mentioned here.

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