Plantago major is a species of Plantago, family Plantaginaceae. The plant is native to most of Europe and northern and central Asia. It is widely naturalised elsewhere in the world, where it is a common weed. As a result, it has many common names. The standard native English name is Greater Plantain, though it is also called Common Plantainin some areas where it is introduced, particularly North America. Another one of its common names was “Soldier’s Herb” for its use on the battlefield as a field dressing.
It is a herbaceous perennial plant with a rosette of leaves 15-30 cm diameter. Each leaf is oval, 5-20 cm long and 4-9 cm broad, rarely up to 30 cm long and 17 cm broad, with an acute apex and a smooth margin; there are five to nine conspicuous veins. The flowers are small, greenish-brown with purple stamens, produced in a dense spike 5-15 cm long on top of a stem 13-15 cm tall (rarely to 70 cm tall).
There are three subspecies:
Plantago major subsp. major.
Plantago major subsp. intermedia
Plantago major subsp. winteri
It grows better than most other plants in compacted soils, and is abundant beside paths, roadsides, and other areas with frequent soil compaction. It is also common in grasslands and as a weed in crops. It is wind-pollinated, and propagates primarily by seeds, which are held on the long, narrow spikes which rise well above the foliage.
The seeds of this plant are a common contaminant in cereal grain and other crop seeds, and as a result the species now has a worldwide distribution as a naturalised (and often invasive) weed. It is believed to be one of the first plants to reach North America after European colonisation. Native Americans called the plant “white man’s footprint” or “Englishman’s foot” because it appeared wherever white men went.
The leaves are edible and used in herbal medicine, but can be somewhat tough. The taste is that of very bitter salad greens with a lingering aftertaste not unlike spinach. Younger leaves are recommended as they are more tender. The leaves when dried can be made into a tisane. The sinews from the broadleaf plantain are very pliable and tough when fresh and/or wettened, and can be used to make small cords or braiding. When dry the sinews harden but also become more brittle.
Historical uses as a wound healer and snakebite remedy have been found to have scientific merit. Plantago major contains the cell proliferant allantoin, and is used as a replacement for hepatotoxic Comfrey in herbal preparations (commercial product Solaray Comfree). It also contains aucubin. Traditionally used to prevent uterine bleeding after childbirth (made into a tea and inserted via a douche), it was also used to treat a variety of other ailments. There is a contraindication that seems to be missing from most of the current literature, however. It is a potent coagulant. This can be tested easily by taking some water-based paint, making some plantain tea and mixing the two together. The paint particles will immediately permanently separate from the water. Because of this unique quality, plantain was used as a wound dressing on the battlefield (it was also called “Soldier’s Herb” which referred to this use). Due to these properties, people who take blood thinners or those prone to blood clots should never use plantain internally. It is also reputed to have a calming effect on insect bites (flea, mosquito, horsefly, wasp).