I can’t believe I didn’t have a photo of plantain when I first wrote this post. It’s everywhere, and you would think it would be somewhere in the wayside photos I’d been taking, but no, not once. But here is a photo I took later of a round-leaved plantain, flourishing even in the frost.
And you, waybread, * mother of herbs,
You look to the east, * you have mighty inner strength.
Over you carts run, * over you women ride,
Over you brides are brought home, * over you pass snorting bulls.
Against all this you prevail * and will prevail yet.
And just so, you prevail * against poison and airborne infection,
And the hateful one * who wanders the earth.
Medical uses of this plant are many, and have been consistently recorded not only in Britain, but in the USA and Canada, where it was taken by migrants – to the point where it was known as ‘white man’s footprint’. In the past in many parts of Britain, the leaves of plantain were crushed and used as poultices for sores and infections, and drawing out pus from boils. It was used to give relief for abrasions, and chafing, and to stop bleeding. Gerard recommends it for eye troubles, but is dismissive of other cures alleged at the time (including easing grief). Shakespeare mentions it as a cure for a broken shin. Culpepper says it is under the denomination of Venus and good for ‘martial’ complaints, by which he means inflammatory conditions, and also toothache and soothing for digestion. Today, Hedgerow Medicine (Julie Bruton-Seal) claims it is anti-inflammatory and soothing for burns, and brilliant for insect stings and bites, and relief of pain. She recommends drinking a tea made from it for coughs, especially sticky mucus cough, and for hayfever, too, combined with elderflower and mint, but Geoffrey Grigson says that plantain pollen is a prime cause of hayfever. The seeds are fibrous and regarded as good for constipation. They were used in some places as cattle feed, or for canaries, and when pounded, also for starching linen.
Children used it for a game of ‘soldiers’ – played a bit like conkers.
There is some actual botany in this bit of the poem. Plantain was called ‘waybread’ because it grows along roadsides, and is very tolerant of compacted soils, and this name survived in some localities until very recently.