Englishman’s Foot (Plantain)

And, you, Waybread [Plantain], mother of herbs, open to the east, mighty within; carts rolled over you, women rode over you, over you brides cried out, bulls snorted over you. All you withstood then, and were crushed; so you withstand poison and contagion and the loathsome one who travels through the land. —Nine Herbs Charm (trans. Slade 2002)

This week’s Pagan Blog Project post was originally going to be about echinacea. I spent most of a week trying to figure out how to write about a plant that I actually don’t care for in the least, rooted in the fact that cone flowers were all the rage with perennial gardeners when I worked at the greenhouse, and I got sick of the damned things. I was grumbling about this to my husband, who gave his standard helpful advice of “why don’t you find something else to write about?”

So, having exhausted the scientific names that begin with “E,” I began browsing common names and found that plantain was sometimes called “Englishman’s Foot.” Bingo! This little guy is ubiquitous in the Northeast, often unfairly maligned as one of those pesky “broadleaf weeds.” In fact, “the ability of plantain to survive frequent trampling and colonize compacted soils makes it important for soil rehabilitation. Its roots break up hardpan surfaces, while simultaneously holding together the soil to prevent erosion” (Tilford & Gladstar 1998, 163). Like so many “common” plants, the role plantain plays in local ecology is often overlooked.

Plantago major

We always had an abundance of the stuff when I was growing up since my father, bless him, refused to use weed killer (of course this mean most of the summer he or I was in the gravel driveway pulling out weeds by hand). I would gather it up for my guinea pig, who couldn’t get enough of the stuff; eventually, we just put Mr. Pig out in the drive (under a laundry basket so he couldn’t escape) and let he eat his way through the vast quantities of plantain. I still put it in spring salads, before the leaves become too tough to be tasty.

I don’t remember when or where I first learned about Plantain’s medicinal properties,* but I remember crunching up the leaves as a kid and putting them on bug bites to help stop the itching. Beyerl cites broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) as a cooling herb, used to reduce fevers, treat burns, and sooth minor wounds and rashes (1984, 143). A weed walk guide told the story of how plantain came to be called Englishman’s or White Man’s Foot, how native peoples knew a European settlement was near by the presence of this plant. It’s interesting how an herb so important to the Anglo-Saxons became the identifier for their descendants as they colonized new lands.

Magically speaking, most of Plantain’s attributes correlate directly with its physical healing properties. Cunningham cites it as being feminine, belonging to Venus and the element of Earth (2003, 207); however, Hopman also associates Plantain with Saturn (133), an argument which I can see being made as it both cleanses and protects.  Both Cunningham (2003, 207) and Hopman (1995, 182) name it as an herb for protection, hung in the home or car to keep out evil spirits. When using plantain leaves in spells like these, I like to balance the feminine Venus qualities with red thread (for Mars and action), something Cunningham mentions in his cure for headaches (2003, 297).

In many ways, Plantain and its fellow weeds like Dandelion and Mugwort embody the purpose of the Pagan Blog Project for me: paying attention to the sacred that surrounds us. These aren’t the “big gods” of the plant world, the immortal Yew or mysterious Datura. These are the everyday beings who are so often overlooked in the search for the powerful and exotic. Plantain represents the daily work, the daily practice that lays the foundations for the more occasional peak experiences. These “weeds” are our altars and our discipline, cultivated over time—our daily prayers rather than high holy days. The lessons Plantain and its fellows provide are often times the most relevant to our continued spiritual progress. Weeds may be small, but their tenacity—a quality I wish to emulate in my own practice—is mighty.

*Usual disclaimer: don’t take medical advice from a druidry blog without checking with a professional first.

 

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