Plantago major (broadleaf plantain, white man's foot, or greater plantain) is a species of flowering plant in the plantain family Plantaginaceae. The plant is native to most of Europe and northern and central Asia, but has widely naturalised elsewhere in the world.
Plantago major is one of the most abundant and widely distributed medicinal crops in the world. A poultice of the leaves can be applied to wounds, stings, and sores in order to facilitate healing and prevent infection. The active chemical constituents are aucubin (an anti-microbial agent), allantoin (which stimulates cellular growth and tissue regeneration), and mucilage (which reduces pain and discomfort). Plantain has astringent properties, and a tea made from the leaves can be ingested to treat diarrhea and soothe raw internal membranes.
Broadleaf plantain is also a very nutritious leaf vegetable that is high in calcium and vitamins A, C, and K. The young, tender leaves can be eaten raw, and the older, stringier leaves can be boiled in stews and eaten. Broadleaf plantain is not related to the fruit also known as plantain, which is a kind of banana.
Each leaf is oval-shaped, 5–20 cm (2–8 in) long and 4–9 cm (1.6–3.5 in) broad, rarely up to 30 cm (12 in) long and 17 cm (7 in) broad, with an acute apex, a smooth margin, and a distinct petiole almost as long as the leaf itself. There are five to nine conspicuous veins over the length of the leaf. The flowers are small, greenish-brown with purple stamens, produced in a dense spike 5–15 cm (2–6 in) long on top of a stem 13–15 cm (5–6 in) tall and rarely to 70 cm (28 in) tall.
Plantain is wind-pollinated, and propagates primarily by seeds, which are held on the long, narrow spikes which rise well above the foliage. Each plant can produce up to 20,000 seeds, which are very small and oval-shaped, with a bitter taste.
- Plantago major subsp. major.
- Plantago major subsp. intermedia (DC.) Arcang.
- Plantago major subsp. winteri (Wirtg.) W.Ludw.
Plantago major grows in lawns and fields, along roadsides, and in other areas that have been disturbed by humans. It does particularly well in compacted or disturbed soils. It is believed to be one of the first plants to reach North America after European colonisation. Reportedly brought to the Americas by Puritan colonizers, plantain was known among some Native American peoples by the common name "white man's footprint", because it thrived in the disturbed and damaged ecosystems surrounding European settlements. The ability of plantain to survive frequent trampling and colonize compacted soils makes it important for soil rehabilitation. Its roots break up hardpan surfaces, while simultaneously holding together the soil to prevent erosion.
The leaves are edible as a salad green when young and tender, but they quickly become tough and fibrous as they get older. The older leaves can be cooked in stews. The leaves contain calcium and other minerals, with 100 grams of plantain containing approximately the same amount of beta-carotene as a large carrot. The seeds are so small that they are tedious to gather, but they can be ground into a flour substitute or extender.
Use in herbal medicine
Plantain is one of the most abundant and accessible plants used in traditional herbal medicine. It contains the chemical compounds allantoin, aucubin, ursolic acid, flavonoids, and asperuloside. Plantain extract has been studied for a range of potential biological effects, including "wound healing activity, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antioxidant, weak antibiotic, immuno modulating and antiulcerogenic activity".
For millennia, poultices of plantain leaves have been applied to wounds, sores, and stings to promote healing. (The clown Costard cries out for a plantain after cutting his shin in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost.) The root of plantain was also traditionally used for wounds, fever, and respiratory infections.
The mature plant contains pliable and tough fibres that can be used in survival situations to make small cords, fishing line, sutures, or braiding.
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- Natural History Museum: Plantago major
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- As a result, Plantago major has many common names. In addition to "broadleaf plantain" and "greater plantain", other common names include: common plantain, broad-leaved plantain, cart track plant, dooryard plantain, greater plantago, healing blade, hen plant, lambs foot, roadweed, roundleaf plantain, snakeroot, waybread, wayside plantain, and white man's foot prints. -- Britton, Nathaniel Lord; Addison Brown (1913). An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States and Canada, Volume 3 (second ed.). Dover Publications, inc. p. 245.
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