“dooryard weed, great plantain, Englishman’s foot, devil’s shoestring, hen plant, birdseed, waybread & rabbit plantain“ are a few of the names given to the ubiquitous Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major).
Our ‘lawn’ is a combo-platter, and yesterday, as I looked around, the plantain was everywhere. In the back of my mind, I recalled reading about the many benefits of this so-called weed, and turned to the herbal books on the shelf. Indeed, the omnipresent dooryard weed seems to be a miracle worker, for its leaves staunch bleeding skin, relieve the itch of stings from mosquitoes and bees, and soothe certain bronchial and intestinal conditions. One can also enjoy the young leaves in a salad or sautéed, and know that these contain calcium and vitamins A, C & K.
By all accounts, plantain was not native to the English Colonies, but brought here, and quickly became known as Englishman’s food by the Native Americans. Midwife Martha Ballard (1735-1812) knew the worthy uses of plantain and other herbs:
“Herbs, wild as well as cultivated, were the true foundation of her practice. She wilted fresh burdock leaves in alcohol to apply to sore muscles, crushed comfrey for a poultice, added melilot (a kind of sweet clover) to hog’s grease for an ointment, boiled agrimony, plantain, and Solomon’s-seal into a syrup, perhaps following an old method that called for reducing the liquid by half, straining this decoction through a woolen cloth, then adding sugar to simmer to the thickness of new honey.”
By dusk, I gathered a jar full of plantain and filled it with apple cider vinegar, and in three weeks time, the liquid will be a perfect antidote to the mighty mosquito.
Isn’t it time we rejoiced in what is in our backyards, used the ‘weeds’ for their advantageous aspects for humans and insects, and stopped putting tons of chemicals on the grass?
Note: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich will give the Keynote Address at the upcoming MassHumanities 2014 Conference, ‘Never Done: Interpreting the History of Women and Work in Massachusetts’ on Monday, June 2, 2014. For information, go to http://www.masshumanities.org/history_conference_2014. Registration closes on May 30th at high noon.
Firefox 2, Eliot Wigginton, editor, (Anchor Books, 1973), pg. 85.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich , A Midwife’s Tale The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, (Vintage Books, 1990), 52, 354.
For more history and uses of plantain, consult: