Wonder Weeds?

Each of these definitions captures the troublesome nature of weeds:

1. A wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.

2. A plant considered undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome, especially one growing where it is not wanted, as in a garden.

3. A plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth; especially one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants

4. A valueless plant growing wild, especially one that grows on cultivated ground to the exclusion or injury of the desired crop.

But what if the “weed” has broad, boldly ribbed leaves (sound like a hosta?), subtle blooms from June to September, and is known to have medicinal properties? Kinda sounds like we should celebrate its ornamental value and healing qualities. The plant I just described is plantain (Plantago major). It thrives in compacted, disturbed soil, apparently like what remains of the lawn in my backyard.

I’m usually not in the mood to celebrate plantain; instead I’m more likely to take pleasure in ripping it out of my lawn and garden beds. But then I read about how it was once honored as a medicinal herb. In the Middle Ages it could be found by the side of the road—even then they had disturbed, compacted soil—and was used as a balm for sore feet. The Website http://www.herbalencounter.com/, says that to keep the feet free from blisters on long walks, put some leaves in your shoes. (The name comes from planta, Latin for the sole of the foot.)

Apparently, the leaves of the plantain contain allantoin, an emollient ingredient in moisturizers, and anti-inflammatory salicylic acid. Crushed plantain leaves have been used to soothe poison ivy rash, old wounds and insect bites. Leaves also are said to be high in vitamins and iron. I haven’t tried adding them to my diet even though an herbalist friend believes plants that we need appear in our lives. As Constance Casey writes in her column “Notes from the World of Living Things” in the September issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine, “People are already paying good money for similarly astringent dandelion greens, and traces of plantain were found in the stomachs of Northern Europe’s mummified 3rd century AD bog people.” As Casey suggests, it’s not that hard to see the plantain as beautiful if not palatable. I’ll try to remember that the next time I head into the garden and share space with the encroaching plantain.