“Indian Bandaid” – Cherokee Elder in Medicine of the Cherokee: The Way of Right Relationship
Range: North America, Europe, Asia
Remedial Synopsis: inflammation, bites, infection, bleeding, congestion
§ Personal Experience §
I love a beautifully manicured lawn as much as the next person. What a summer time pleasure to lie on a soft patch of dense Fescue and look up at the blue sky. But you turn over in your reverie to find your diligent handiwork defeated – again! – by weeds. For many in our American culture, a yard cannot be enjoyed until all weeds are eradicated. And you certainly can’t qualify for the politically-fueled beautification award when Mrs. Jones over there is constantly being visited by her Tru-Green guy. Let’s not fetch the Round Up just yet, though – you may find that you get greater pleasure in growing those “weeds” than you do in annihilating them.
My testimony to herbalism starts with Plantago major, this common weed found in many North American yards. During my stay with Ila Hatter, a Cherokee wildcrafter in the beautiful Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, my perspective on what I had considered to be weeds was greatly reshaped. After a woodland trek filled with sensory wonderment and Native American anecdotes, I was left with a notebook full of useful information on medicinal plants, including Broadleaf Plantain.
Little did I know that I would so quickly utilize the knowledge Ila had passed down to me. For the next day, my boyfriend, Hunter, and I were in Asheville with the plan to meander through the downtown. My right foot started to hurt something awful, and we discovered that I was unfortunate enough to have incurred a spider bite. The bite had caused irritation and inflammation that only worsened when I walked. And I had been looking forward to exploring Asheville! But without hesitation, Hunter left the car to find a weedy patch of grass that must have been overlooked by city landscapers. He quickly spotted the Broadleaf Plantain and grabbed several of its leaves. I mashed it into a poultice, applied it to the bite, and to our astonishment, the inflammation began to go down faster than if I had applied a hydrocortisone cream. In just a few minutes, the redness and swelling completely disappeared, and we were happily and healthily strolling down the streets of Asheville.
Because of this ethnobotanical experience, I was left with my testimony to herbalism and the realization that the Earth has a sensitive inclination towards self-healing that extends to all of her inhabitants – flora, fauna, and humans alike. As described in the history of Plantain, this plant is greatly associated with the comings and goings of humans. Where a foot treads, the Plantain will find a home. And while the reduction of competition for such a low-growing, sun-loving plant seems a reasonable explanation as to why it crops up in the passage of man, I’d like to think that the trails we carve out in nature act as a tracking device for Mother Earth, so that she might easily find us and provide healing. I realize how flowery that concept may come across, but even if you refuse to personify the Earth, there is no doubt that the systems of our world are netted together by undeniable, scientific, and purposeful intricacies.
…So yes, you may continue to wage war against these weedy warriors if you so choose. But please do not mistake their tenacity as a trait without designed purpose.
§ History and Folklore §
Plantain has been revered for centuries across many continents; thus, the history and documentation of this plant is so abundant that I have limited it to just a few passages. One day, I hope to construct an in-depth botanical study of just the history of this herb, but for now, I have selected some of my favorite references.
Many names. One meaning.
• Gaelic = slan lus = “Healing Herb”
• Norwegian/Swedish = grobald = ‘Healing Leaves”
• Anglo-Saxon = wegbræde = “Mother of Herbs”
1st C. De Materia Medica, Dioscorides.
The following excerpt is an English translation of Dioscorides medicinal account of Plantago major.
The leaves are drying and astringent. Therefore rubbed on they work against all malignancies, and leprous, running, filthy ulcers. They also stop excessive discharges of blood, gangrenous ulceration, carbuncles [malignant tumours], shingles [herpes] and epinyctis [pustules which appear only at night]. They form a skin over old irregular ulcers, and heal chironian [cheiralgia — pain in the hand or cuts from a surgeon] and hollow creeks caused by it. They are good applied with salt for dog bites, burns, inflammation, and parotitis [inflamed glands, mumps], as well as the inflammation of bones, scrofulous tumours [glandular swelling, goitres], and ulcers of the eyes. The herb (boiled and taken with water and salt) helps dysentery and abdominal distress.”
10th C. Lacnunga, Anglo-Saxon medical codex.
Plantain is listed as one of the nine sacred herbs that combat nine corresponding “venoms”.
Ond þu, wegbræde, wyrta modor,
Eastan openo, innan mihtigu;
Ofer ðe crætu curran, ofer ðe cwene reodan,
Ofer ðe bryde bryodedon, ofer þe fearras fnærdon.
Eallum þu þon wiðstode and wiðstunedest;
Swa ðu wiðstonde attre and onflyge
Ond þæm laðan þe geond lond færð.
And you, Waybread (Plantain) mother of herbs,
Open from the east, mighty inside.
Over you chariots creaked, over you queens rode,
Over you brides cried out, over you bulls snorted.
All of them you then withstood, you withstood them,
May you likewise withstand poison and the onflying,
And the loathsome foe roving through the land.
14th C. The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, Chaucer.
In his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer relates the aspects of a yeoman with several herbal descriptions.
“He had a burdock-leaf under his hood against the sweat, and to save his head from the sun. But it was a joy to see him sweat! His forehead dripped like a still, full of plantain and pellitory”
15th C. A Letter from the Rev. Mr. John Clayton.
Reverend John Clayton was a scholarly clergyman who traveled to colonial Virginia where he compiled many observations about the flora and fauna of Virginia and the Native Americans’ interactions with them.
The following is an excerpt from one of Clayton’s letter that addresses the queries of his contemporaries back in Europe:
“They use also the Grafalium Americanum commonly called the white Plantain. As to our Plantain or the Heptapleuron they call it the ” Englishman’s foot” and have a tradition that it will only grow where they have troden, and was never know before the English came into this countrey.”
16th C. Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare.
49 Take thou some new infection to thy eye,
50 And the rank poison of the old will die.
51 Your plantain-leaf is excellent for that.
52 For what, I pray thee?
53 For your broken shin.
*Other references to Plantain can be found in Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen and Love’s Labour’s Lost.
19th C. Plant Atlas, Father Sebastian Kneipp.
“Plantain closes the gaping wound with a seam of gold thread; for, just
as gold will not admit of rust, so the plantain will not admit of rotting and gangrenous flesh.”
19th C. The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
In his epic poem, Longfellow makes a mention of Plantain, employing the colloquial moniker of ‘White-Man’s Foot’, which further reinforces the Native American experience with Plantain.
“Wheresoe’er they move, before them Swarms the stinging fly, the Ahmo, Swarms the bee, the honey-maker; Wheresoe’er they tread, beneath them Springs a flower unknown among us, Springs the White-man’s Foot in blossom.”
§ Healing Action §
Herbalism is an integrative form of medicine. The following table is broken down – for simplicity’s sake – into chemical constituents and their effects, but many of the parts act synergistically. For example, Plantain’s demulcent and astringent actions work together to treat conditions such as sinusitis. All at once the plant will protect the mucus membranes with its demulcent constituents, while breaking down existing mucus with its anticatarrhal (astringent) constituents. The anti-inflammatory response is generally a secondary response resulting in the success of the aforementioned actions.
§ Herbal Preparation §
cough urinary infections
bronchitis hay fever
sore throat allergies
bee stings burns
insect bites rashes
§ Ahlborn, Margaret L., “The Benefits of the Use of Plantain in Herbal Preparations.” <http://www.herballegacy.com/Ahlborn_History.html>
§ Bushnell, Jr., David I. Virginia – From Early Records. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1907), pp. 31-44.
§ Dioscorides, De Materia Medica: Being an Herbal with many other medicinal materials. Translated by Tess Anne Osbaldeston (2000).
§ Kaldera, Raven, “The Song of the Nine Sacred Herbs.” <http://www.northernshamanism.org/herbalism/the-nine-sacred-herbs/song.html>
§ Newall C, et al. Herbal Medicines. London, England: Pharmaceutical Press. 1996;210–211.