The Plantains (Plantaginacecoe), from planta, the sole of the
foot, are humble plants, well known as weeds in fields and by
roadsides, having ribbed leaves and spikes of flowers conspicuous
by their long stamens. As Herbal Simples, the Greater Plantain, the
Ribwort Plantain, and the Water Plantain, are to be specially
The Greater Plantain of the waysides affords spikes of seeds which
are a favourite food of Canaries, and which, in common with the
seeds of other sorts, yield a tasteless mucilage, answering well as a
substitute for linseed. The leaves of the Plantains have a bitter
taste, and are somewhat astringent.
The generic name Plantago is probably derived from the Latin
planta, the sole of the foot, in allusion to the  broad, flat
leaves lying close on the ground, and ago, the old synonym for wort,
a cultivated plant.
This greater Plantain (Plantago major) is also termed Waybred,
Waybread, or Waybroad, spread on the way, and has followed our
colonists to all parts of the globe, being therefore styled The
Englishman's Foot and Whiteman's Foot. The shape of the leaf in
the larger species resembles a footprint. The root has a sweet taste,
and gives the saliva a reddish tinge.
Dioscorides advised that it should be applied externally for sores of
every kind, and taken internally against haemorrhages. In the
Romeo and Juliet of Shakespeare, Romeo says, Your Plantain
leaf is excellent for broken shin. Country persons apply these
leaves to open sores and wounds, or make a poultice of them, or
give fomentations with a hot decoction of the same, or prepare a
gargle from the decoction when cold.
The expressed juice of the greater Plantain has proved of curative
effect in tubercular consumption, with spitting of blood. This herb is
said to furnish a cure for the venomous bite of the rattlesnake, as
discovered by the negro Caesar in South Carolina.
It is of excellent curative use against the intermittent fevers of
Spring, but for counteracting autumnal (septic) fevers it is of no
The virtues of the greater Plantain as an application to wounds and
sores were known of old. It possesses a widespread repute in
Switzerland as a local remedy for toothache, the root or leaves being
applied against the ear of the affected side. Those persons who
proved the plant by taking it experimentally in various doses,
suffered much pain in the teeth and jaws. Accordingly, Dr. Hale
found that, of all his remedies  for the toothache, none could
compare with the Plantago major.
It gives rise to an active flow of urine when taken in considerable
doses, and when administered in small doses of the diluted tincture,
it has proved curative of bed wetting in young children. Gerard tells
that Plantain leaves stuped stayeth the inordinate flux of the terms,
though it hath continued many years. For inflamed protruding
piles, a broad-leaved Plantain reduced to a pulp, and kept bound to
the parts by a compress, will give sure and speedy relief.
Highlanders call it Slanlus, the healing plant.
The Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata), Ribgrass, Soldiers, or
Cocks and Hens, is named from the strong parallel veins in its
leaves. The flower stalks are termed Kemps, from campa, a
warrior. The leaves are astringent, and useful for healing sores when
applied thereto, and for dressing wounds. This Plantain is also
named Hardheads, Fighting Cocks, and in Germany, Devil's Head,
being used in divination. Children challenge one another to a game
of striking off the heads.
Toads are thought to cure themselves of their ailments by eating its
leaves. In Sussex, it is known as Lamb's Tongue. The powdered root
of the Ribwort Plantain is of use for curing vernal ague, a
dessertspoonful being given for a dose, two or three times in a day.
The Water Plantain (Alisma Plantago), belonging to a different
natural order, is common on the margins of our rivers and ditches,
getting its name from the Celtic alos, water, and being called also
the greater Thrumwort, from thrum, the warp end of a weaver's web.
The root and leaves contain an acrid juice, dispersed by heat, which
is of service for irritability of the bladder. After  the root is
boiled so as to dissipate this medicinal juice it makes an edible
This plant is commonly classed with the Plantains because its leaves
resemble theirs; but in general characteristics and qualities it more
properly belongs to the Ranunculaceoe.
Its fresh leaves applied to the skin will raise a blister, and may be
used for such a purpose, especially to relieve the swollen legs of
dropsical subjects when the vesicles should be punctured and the
serum drawn off. They contain a pungent butyraceous volatile oil.
The seeds dislodged from the dry, ripe plant, by striking it smartly
on a table, are good in decoction against bleedings, and are
employed by country people for curing piles. About the Russian
Empire the Water Plantain is still regarded as efficacious against
hydrophobia. Dr. George Johnston says: In the Government of
Isola it has never failed of a cure for the last twenty-five years.
Reduced to powder it is spread over bread and butter, and is eaten.
Likewise, cures of rabid dogs by this plant are reported; and in
America it is renowned as a remedy against the bite of the
rattlesnake. The tubers contain a nutritious substance, and are eaten
by the Tartars.
Apropos of this Water Plantain a Teesdale proverb says: He's
nar a good weaver that leaves lang thrums.
The small seeds of a Plantain grass which grows commonly in
Southern Europe, the Fleawort, or Plantago Psyllium, have been
known from time immemorial as an easy and popular aperient. In
France these Psyllium seeds, given in a dessertspoonful dose, are
widely prescribed as a laxative in lieu of mineral aperient waters,
or the morning Seidlitz. They act after being soaked for some hours
in cold water, by their mucilage, and  when swallowed, by
virtue of a laxative oil set free within the intestines. The grass is
well known in some parts as Clammy Plantain, and it has leafless
heads with toothed leaves. These seeds are dispensed by the London
druggists who supply French medicines.