Herbalists, both modern and ancient, attribute many medicinal uses to common plantain (Plantago major). It seems as though almost every ailment can be treated with concoctions of this plant with a worldwide distribution. Common plantain contains, among other compounds, acubin glycoside, an anti-microbial, and allantoin, a cell growth promoter. Thus poultices of common plantain are effective to promote healing of wounds and sores. I am not certain how many of the other medicinal claims are proven to be effective.
Common plantain was one of the first plants introduced to North America by the earliest European colonists. Since its habitat is disturbed areas, particularly compacted soils, Native Americans called P major white man’s foot because it thrived on footpaths. Since its introduction, common plantain has become a noxious weed in some areas.
Generally considered a perennial, common plantain can also grow as an annual. It is wind pollinated and mainly propagated by seeds.
The leaves of common plantain are basal rosette. Broadly elliptical to oval, the large leaves have a smooth margin, an acute apex and a long petiole (stem). Five to nine parallel veins containing strong fibers run the length of the blade. These fibers can be pulled away and used to make thread, fishing line or even suture material in an emergency.
The flowers are arranged terminally in a dense spike on a leafless stalk. The small flowers are inconspicuous and consist of 4 tepals fused into a tube with greenish brown or purple stamens. The fruits have 6 to 11 small, oval seeds.
Common plantain leaves are edible and taste like Swiss chard. When young they can be eaten raw. Older, tougher leaves may be boiled as a potherb. Common plantain leaves are high in calcium and Vitamins A, C and K.
Also colloquially called broadleaf plantain, common plantain’s genus designation, Plantago, is the Latin name for plantain and comes from “planta” meaning “footprint”. The species name means “greater” or “larger”.
These common plantain specimens were growing at the Baker Wayside along the North Umpqua River (Douglas County OR) and were photographed in August.