Plantain Beginnings

When Parthenia Pitts was unwell in the summer of 1794, her aunt, Martha Ballard, “made her a Syrrup of Comphrey, Plantain, Agrimony & Solomon Seale leavs.” As historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich observes in the appendix to her book about Ballard’s life and career, we cannot know for certain where Ballard obtained these medicinal plants. If she had traded for them or received them as payment for services, she surely would have noted it in her daily log. The absence of any such record suggests that Ballard acquired the plants in a more mundane manner, one almost unworthy of mention even in a diary filled with the minutia of daily life. In all likelihood, Ballard gathered the plants herself. But from where? And when?

Close up of bell-shaped blooms of wild comfrey
Wild common Comfrey. Image source: Mary and Angus Hogg, for geograph.co.uk

Comfrey, or boneset, is an attractive plant that, because of its eye-pleasing purple and blue bells, may have grown in one of the small gardens in the Ballard family’s yard. The tall, graceful, bright yellow stems of Agrimony might have been useful as a dye for the household’s linens as well as a lovely complement to the Comfrey. The starchy roots of Solomon’s Seale might have been used to flavor a stew or have been ground into flour. Of the ingredients in Ballard’s medicinal syrup, only Plantain was unlikely to have been deliberately cultivated in the Ballard’s yard.

In the twenty-first century, Plantain is considered a weed and many suburban householders expend much energy on eradicating its ungainly stalks and broad leaves from their lawns each summer. Given the Ballard family’s dependence on their gardens for food and medicines, Martha Ballard would have wanted to protect her intentional plantings from the chokehold of weeds. But perhaps, knowing the medicinal value of Plantain, she allowed it to claim its own space in the garden plot, alongside the coriander, mandrake, rue, and sage she planted and tended each year.

Plantain, though, can be difficult to cultivate. So perhaps instead Ballard preferred to gather it from the wild. We know that when her daughter Polly was ill with a canker, Ballard “went to the field & got some cold water root.” An 1837 edition of The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal identifies Cold Water Root as A. Puniceus,Aster puniceus, the swamp aster, the star flower, the red-stemmed aster. The tall purple flower appears in late summer through early fall, just in time for Ballard to treat her daughter’s late summer sore throat. Plantain, too, would still be growing in abundance in fields, along roads and paths, and near river banks. Perhaps Ballard gathered late spring plantain from the same field she would later watch for the year’s first blooms of Cold Water Root.

In mid-June 2017, 223 years after Martha Ballard fixed a syrup for her ailing niece, I attended my first herbalism class. Six months earlier I had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and arthritis and I wanted options for relief and anti-inflammation that made me feel more in control of what was going into my body. As a Pagan, I also appreciated the timing- it was the week of the Summer Solstice, and I wanted to feel more knowledgeable about and connected with the Earth.

I listened as the instructor talked about energetics and actions, astringents and adaptogens. As a scholar of medical history, I was simultaneously intrigued and skeptical. Much of what the instructor was saying seemed straight out of the 18th century. Warming and cooling, moistening and drying — this all sounded like remnants of the much older humoral theory of the body. I taught this in my history of medicine course as what came before the emergence of what we would recognize as modern medicine. When she began talking about the properties and uses of Plantain, however, something within me took notice. Despite the instructor’s insistence that Plantain was everywhere, I had no clue what she was talking about. Plantain, I thought, was sort of like an exotic banana. Not something that grew natively in Iowa. Surely I was mishearing.

I leaned over to my sister-in-law and asked her, “plan-what?”

“Plantain. It’s all over your yard.”

“Really?”

“Yup.”

“Huh.”

When we got home, I asked her to point it out to me. Sure enough, it was, indeed, all over my yard. And it looked nothing like a banana.

Long stems and large leaves of plantain drying in my kitchen.

My yard was filed with a plant that could ease the sting of a bee, the bite of a mosquito, and the burn of indigestion. A plant that may help lower cholesterol and blood sugars. A plant that helped clear acne and soothe burns. A plant whose fresh leaves could help stop bleeding. A plant that, when mixed in a gargle, eased a sore throat.

Sitting in the class, listening to the instructor talk about the various uses and benefits of Plantain, I had started to feel less skeptical and more frustrated. I looked around the room at the other fifteen-or-so women hastily taking notes and asking questions, and I thought of Martha Ballard. And I got pissed. Martha Ballard knew what Plantain looked like. She knew how to harvest it and what to do with its leaves, stems, and roots. She knew that it was worth sacrificing a well-manicured bed or lawn in order to keep it handy. But even though I had studied and taught about Martha Ballard for decades, I did not know any of this. This knowledge had been systematically taken from me and my classmates. What sufferings, what discomforts, what expenses might have been prevented if only we had retained this information. I acknowledged that despite my eagerness to be present in the classroom, my own skepticism had been filtering everything I was taking in. I decided then and there to let the skepticism go. In its place I would take a leap of faith and embrace the wisdom, methods, and philosophies of herbalism so that I could learn more.

Plantain, then, is my plant of beginnings. It’s the plant that inspired me to embark upon this journey. And, given its abundance in my yard, it also is the plant I started learning about first. I certainly could not have predicted all the amazing places it would take me.

Featured Image: Preparing to grind dried plantain for use in a salve.

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