Saturday, July 18, 2015

Plantain: Indigenous Food and Medicine



Most modern popular literature about the low growing herb we often call plantain tends to focus on Plantago major (which is deemed to be of European origins), while ignoring the many species which are endemic to North America.  In this on-going endeavor to completely erase the native species from our minds, the claim is often set forth that the Indigenous People learned to use plantain from the colonists and settlers.  

In an effort to set the record straight, I have collected a little information on just a few of the indigenous plantains to share with you, along with a few of their traditional tribal uses.  There are actually very many native plantains found in North America, as well as in other parts of the world.  Plantago major is by no means the beginning and ending of the plantain story.  Hopefully this small collection of information will inspire some of you to do some research on the native plantains found in your areas or from your own homelands.  From there, you can search out how your own ancestors or the original inhabitants of your area used the plantains found near where you live.  More research, even on the Plantago species listed below will turn up a wealth of information not included here.

 “Plantain has been consumed as human food since prehistory. For example, archaeological recovery along California's Central Coast has demonstrated use of this species as a food since the Millingstone Horizon.” 1.    The Millingstone Horizon is an archaeological period in California, USA  dated from 6500 to 1500 BC. 2.

The following information is based on a search of on-line documents, and is not based on my experience with any of the species discussed.  My purpose in undertaking this little project was to expand the discussion on the medicinal and edible Plantago species of North America, and to encourage interested persons to do further research.  Before using any unfamiliar plant for any purpose one must be very sure of their identification, and they must be knowledgeable about possible toxic look-a-likes in their area.  Before ingesting or otherwise using any unfamiliar plants, double checking identification with a knowledgeable person who has long been in the habit of using them for your intended purpose is not only wise, it may save your life.  Don’t depend only on information on websites and in books to determine what use for food or medicine.  Be careful! 

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Selected North American native Plantago species: 

Plantago cordata

This indigenous plantain was primarily found in or near wetlands in the mid-west, great lakes, Appalachian, and East Coast areas of the US and up into Canada.  This lovely large Plantago was an important food and medicine plant of the Indigenous people wherever it was found.  It is currently a sought after ornamental plant for wetland type gardens.  It has become rare, threatened, endangered or absent throughout much of its former range.  It is sensitive to the loss and degradation of habitat, grazing, and climate change.

Range: 

Photo:

Ethnobotany: 

A discussion of the ethnobotany and economic uses of P. cordata, long reputed as a medicinal plant, is provided by Tessene (1969).”  Tessene, M. 1969. Systematic and ecological studies on Plantago cordata. Mich. Bot. 8: 72-104”  


“This species is of special significance because of its traditional use as a medicinal plant by native peoples of eastern North America.”   http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2013/ec/CW69-14-143-2002-eng.pdf


Edible:
 “ . . .  the plant is edible and the best tasting of all the Missouri plantains.”  http://www.missouriplants.com/Others/Plantago_cordata_page.html 
(Also see the sources shared directly below under “Medicinal.”)

Medicinal: 

Heart-leaved Plantain has also been collected for use as food and as a medicinal herb (Tessene 1969, NatureServe 2006, Moerman 1998, Steyermark 1963), including in Canada (Jalava et al. 2009).”  http://www.mnr.gov.on.ca/stdprodconsume/groups/lr/@mnr/@species/documents/document/stdprod_075578.pdf 

In addition to being edible, it reportedly cures a wide range of ailments from snakebites to congested swellings and low scrofulous ulcers.” http://www.plantdelights.com/Plantago-cordata-for-sale/Buy-Water-Plantain/#sthash.Pf79UFWQ.dpuf

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Plantago maritima
Is one of the smaller statured indigenous plantains that you might miss if you don’t know what you are looking for.  It is endemic to coastal and cool temperature areas of the US and it is wide spread throughout Canada, where it is relished as a tasty wild edible.

Range: 

Photo: 


Ethnobotany: 

Alaska Native food eaten fresh or cooked and canned for winter use, from: Heller, Christine A. 1953, Edible and Poisonous Plants of Alaska. University of Alaska (p. 45)  http://herb.umd.umich.edu/herb/search.pl?searchstring=Plantago+maritima

Check the index in the book, “Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge,” by  Nancy Turner,  who covers uses of this plant.  The book may be available, when released, in the reference section of your local or university library.   http://www.amazon.com/Ancient-Pathways-Ancestral-Knowledge-Mcgill-Queens/dp/0773543805/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1404152839&sr=1-1-fkmr0&keywords=%22Ancient+Pathways%2C+Ancestral+Knowledge%2C%E2%80%9D+by++Nancy+Turner



Edible:
 “ . . . young leaves are cooked as a spring green and occasionally sold in markets . . .”
Young leaves raw or cooked, seeds as flour extender:

Note:  
 It appears this plant is primarily used as a food rather than a medicine by both Indigenous people and settlers and their descendants.  No information on medicinal uses was found.

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Plantago patagonica
Of small to medium stature compared to other indigenous plantains, it sports fuzzy leaves, is adapted to a variety of climate zones, and was much used as a medicinal and cultural plant.

Range:

Photos:   

Ethnobotany:  

“. . . Plantago patagonia is the basis for a boy’s game called horse race. Boys would place bets and run as fast as they could for a certain amount of time in search of the longest flowering stem for this Plantago.  After the set amount of time had passed, the boy with the longest stem won and collected the bets.”

Also:  “A number of infrequent and several common plant Species on the Kiowa National Grassland have potentially important plant biochemicals.  Among the plant genera on our checklist with such a potential are: . . . Plantago . . . and others.”

Sixteen different ethnobotany uses (including medicinal) by various tribes listed here:  http://herb.umd.umich.edu/herb/search.pl?searchstring=Plantago+patagonica

Note: 
This plant does not seem to have been adopted into non-Native medicinal or edible usage.


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Plantago rugelii

 Rugel's plantain is native to much of the Central, Southern, Eastern and Northern areas of the US and it extends its territory up into the North Eastern areas of Canada.  It is often confused with Plantago major, to the extent that many photos of Plantago major are actually Plantago rugelii.  Fortunately, it seems that they can be used interchangeably as food and medicine—which is a good thing, because it  there is a lot of that, apparently, going on.  In many areas Plantago rugelii has larger populations and is more wide spread than the P. major of “White man’s foot” infamy.   In fact, this indigenous plant seems to have followed those foot prints across the country, it can now be found in many areas beyond its original range.  Check the link for Photos directly below to learn how to tell these plants apart.

Range: 

Photos: 

Ethnobotany:  

Iroquois Medical Botany - Page 211, gives a number of traditional uses, see Google Books Result:


Search on “Plantago rudelii” at the following link for Menominee medicinal uses:  http://herb.umd.umich.edu/

Medicinal use by Native people of the Miami and Potawatomi Peoples, page 50: http://www.csu.edu/cerc/researchreports/documents/AnEthnobotanyIndianaDunesNationalLakeshoreVolume2.pdf

Edible:
“The young leaves are palatable and can be eaten raw or cooked.”   http://eattheplanet.org/archives/1868

Medicinal:
Plantain seeds contain up to 30% mucilage which swells up in the gut, acting as a bulk laxative and soothing irritated membranes. Sometimes the seed husks are used without the seeds. A poultice of the fresh leaves is used to treat burns and inflammations.” 

Other:

Of Interest to Gardeners and Farmers, P. rugelii extract has been found to be toxic to root knot nematodes.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2586708/

Its use as a dye material is documented here:

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Plantago virginica

Slightly fuzzy medium sized to small species endemic through a wide area of the continental US. There are only eight states where it is not found, including a few each of the Northern, Desert, and Central States.  It is generally classified as a winter annual.  It grows during the cool moist season, sets seeds to grow the following year, and expires in summer’s heat.

Range:

Photos:

Ethnobotany: 

“The Kiowa tribe has used this plant in ceremonial garlands to confer health on the elders during dances.”  https://gobotany.newenglandwild.org/species/plantago/virginica/

“The whole plant with roots is boiled to make a tea which is given to children suffering from dysentery.”  ‘Catawba Herbals and Curative Practices,’ by Frank G. Speck.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/535753

Traditional Native uses are included in, ‘Baboquivari Mountain Plants: Identification, Ecology, and Ethnobotany,’  By Daniel F. Austin;  this book may be available in the reference section of your local or university library.   http://www.amazon.com/Baboquivari-Mountain-Plants-Identification-Ethnobotany/dp/0816528373

Edible:
“Though P. virginica has a hairy texture raw it yields readily when cooked and is a soft pleasant green.”  http://www.eattheweeds.com/newsletter-7-january-2014/

Medicinal:
“The leaves are reputed of superior efficacy on poisoned wounds and boils, and give promise of being a valuable nervine.”  The quote is found under the entry for Plantago virginica at the following page:   http://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/cook/PLANTAGO_MAJOR.htm


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White Man’s Footprint?

The historical basis for the moniker, “White Man’s Foot,” being attributed  to some plantains probably stems from the Latin roots of the botanical name for this group of plants--Plantago.   Plantago comes from “Planta,” which in Latin means “sole of the foot” and “ago” which is a suffix that means “sort of.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plantago
Another interpretation of the Latin can be found all over the Internet, “Plantago: from Latin planta meaning "foot print."  One example:  http://wisplants.uwsp.edu/scripts/detail.asp?SpCode=PLAMED 

A very few descendants of North American tribal people, and possibly even some tribes, have adopted this common name (or some derivative) for  Plantago major—English plantain.  We see, however, by the botanical name that European people have long associated the Plantago species with their own feet or footprints.  It is unlikely that very many Indigenous people would have come up with this name on their own, since they were using native Plantago species for long before they adopted the English language or had contact with English speaking people.   It is further very unlikely that very many Indigenous persons would have needed to learn uses of plantain from settlers, as Plantago species were wide spread and commonly used throughout North America prior to contact.   Please see the short entry below, as an example.

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Navajo Names for Plantain:
hastoi ci-ye'r--old man's queue:  . . .  Plantago argyrea
bi'hi-lja'?-deer's ears:  . . .  Plantago major

?alii: be'yi.c'oI:-urine spurter (diuretic):  . . .  Plantago major

If you are patient you could also find Navajo uses at this page:

Note:  All the tribes that use the plantains have names for the plants in their own languages.   Check with your Tribal Language Department or Language Specialist to find resources that may help find the traditional names for the plantains used in your area.  University ethnobotany collections are also a good source of information.

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Sources cited in introduction:


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The End! 

End Notes:
 
If you find typos, broken links, or layout problems--please feel free to leave a comment.  I will fix them as soon as I can.

If you use any of the native plantains for food, medicine, or utility—and it isn’t closely guarded tribal intellectual property—please feel free to share.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Bird's foot trefoil vs the Strawberries



A lovely weed, commonly known as bird's foot trefoil, has invaded and is threatening to take over the bed and wipe out the strawberries at our local community garden.

Bird's foot trefoil does have a place in the garden. It is a fabulous nitrogen fixer, it makes a great warm season cover crop and it can be used with good effect as a beneficial ground cover in orchards and under tall crops such as corn. Its good qualities don't stop there! It is good for bees and it attracts beneficial insects, it can help stabilize slopes, and it is pretty to look at. However, it grows taller and much more vigorously than strawberries--so it is definitely a weed in regards to our strawberry bed.  Meanwhile, there are varieties that are much esteemed as wildflowers by the British.


"Eyebright and birdsfoot starred the grass, and already vivid green clumps of marjoram reached up to bloom." 

 John Fowles, speaking of English wildflowers in, 'The French Lieutenant's Woman.'


There are several varieties of bird's foot trefoil, the one in our garden produces 'stolons,' which are modified stems that the plant uses to spread, much like mint. When you pull the plant up, you will notice these white runners, which are just a little thicker than its stems and roots. Those are the stolons. If left in the ground or put, fresh, into the compost they will root and produce more plants. In addition, our lovely bird's food trefoil produces 'adventitious' roots--that is to say, the above ground stems can root. And as if all of that was not scary enough, after flowering it produces viable seed.

Once you learn to identify bird's foot trefoil, you will see that it is found in various places around the garden. Here is the good news. It is easy to pull, and it is easy to shake the dirt off the roots. (Please do your best to make sure the dirt stays in the garden beds. The more dirt we get into our rock pathways, the more weeds those pathways will grow.) It wilts quickly, and if pulled before it sets seed, it can be left to wilt on the edge of the rock pathways. If you have a big pile of it, spread it out, you might have to turn it over once or twice every few days before it is all thoroughly wilted. Once it is thoroughly wilted, as long as it doesn't contain viable seed, it makes an excellent addition to mulch and compost. Just remember to get it into the compost as soon as it is ready. Weeds temporarily wilting along the walk ways are all good. Leave them there too long, however, and they start breeding slugs, and after that, they start decomposing and turning into top soil. Which will encourage more weeds . . . 

If the bird's foot trefoil shows up in your own bed, or if you decide to be the strawberry hero, you are certainly welcome to bag up the trefoil and take it away. A word of caution is necessary of you are thinking of feeding it to animals. There are several species of bird's foot trefoil, some make good forage and fodder and some are considered toxic. Don't plan on feeding this to animals without taking samples to the County Agricultural Extension for proper identification first!

Meanwhile, our precious organic strawberries are imperiled, and our coordinator has her hands full with the food bank bed.

If the weather (and memory) agrees, we will try to get a photo of the bird's foot trefoil for you on Wednesday. It looks a bit like clover, with the familiar compound leaf made up of three leaflets . . . if you check the strawberry bed it is the most rampant plant in there.