#71 Plantain




Photo by EKS

Not to be confused with green cooking bananas, plantains are widespread weeds of the Plantaginaceae family; the genus Plantago encompasses more than 200 species which are practically omnipresent throughout Eurasia, North America, and Australia having been spread by European, especially British, settlers throughout the colonies (Hogan 1056). In fact, a website on the history and distribution of the Broadleaf Plantain maintains that the plant’s “remarkable fecundity” has “resulted in its worldwide distribution.”[1] Emerging from a basal rosette of oval leaves, the long, leafless stems of the English Plantain, Plantago laceolata or Ribwort,[2] support individual cones or spikes with a frill of flowers that sometimes resemble a ballerina’s tutu. From 2-15 inches tall, plantains “tend to be persistent lawn weeds” (Hogan 1056), but have long been cultivated as useful medicinal herbs. According to the Broadleaf website, “Studies of peat bog pollen grains reveal that plantain was growing in England before recorded history” and “seeds of P. major and P. lanceolata were found in northern Europe in the stomachs of `bog people' whose mummified remains date from the 3rd and 5th centuries A.D.” The list of uses in Wikipedia is impressively long: “The herb is astringent, anti-toxic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anti-histamine, as well as demulcent, expectorant, styptic and diuretic. Externally, a poultice of the leaves is useful for insect bites, poison-ivy rashes, minor sores, and boils. . . . Internally, it is used for coughs and bronchitis, as a tea, tincture, or syrup.”[3]  In her book on the history of Weeds, Nina Edwards adds that a plantain poultice “reduces haemorrhoids and stauches haemorrhaging wounds” (158).


The curative properties of plantain have been extolled throughout the history of British literature. In 1390, Gower called it “the herb sovereine” in his “The Lover’s Confession,” and in Chaucer’s “Prologue to the Yeoman’s Tale,” the sweating Canon’s head is plastered with Burdock root and plantain (ll. 580-1).[4]  Henry Ellacombe records several mentions of plantains in Shakespeare, all of which reference its medical uses as a salve or bandage (226).  In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Costard is in such a hurry to answer Don Adriano de Armado’s summons that he has stumbled on the threshold and “broken” his shin, and thus he calls for a plantain (III, i, l. 71); similarly, Romeo recommends a “Plantain leaf” as an excellent amelioration for Benvolio’s broken shin in Romeo and Juliet (I, ii, 52). And in Two Noble Kinsman, Palamon claims that his wounds are such “poor slight sores” that they “Neede not a Plantain” (I, ii, l. 65).


  Plantains are mentioned four times in Woolf’s fiction, all in a single scenic cluster near the end of To the Lighthouse, where Lily Briscoe sits on the rough lawn in front of the house and notices a “little colony of plantains” which she examines and then stirs with her brush (197). The appearance of the common weed in the lawn is of course a sign of horticultural neglect, but since it is the only actual plant referred to in Part III of the novel (all the rest are either metaphors or mental visions), the plantain carries a certain symbolic import. Beginning by declaring “The lawn was the world,” Woolf sets up the cluster of leaves and small towering pyramidal blossoms as yet another microscopic vignette, a shift in perspective in which the weedy inflorescence is possibly analogous to the lighthouse, standing upon its small island “shaped something like a leaf stood on its side” (TTL 191). 


While observing the tiny flowers, Lily meditates on the multiple perspectives from which a person’s character can be viewed: “thinking how many shapes one person might wear,” she reflects on Mr. Carmichael’s present fame as a poet, on Andrew’s sudden death in WWI, and on Mrs. Ramsey, whose disagreeable aspects she now recognizes (197).  Her new clarity of vision frees her from her previous near idolatry: “She did not want Mrs. Ramsey now” (198). In a similar fashion, she is able to cut previously negative emotions down to size and restore “the proportions of one’s world” (199). Remembering Charles Tansley’s officious pronouncement that “women can’t write, women can’t paint,” she recalls a more recent encounter when Tansley was preaching in a Hall “lean and red and raucous”; while she parenthetically notices a group of “red, energetic shiny ants rather like Charles Tansley” crawling about among the plantains, she repairs her own “grotesque” idea of Tansley by remembering how he educated his little sister (200).  Echoing Nancy’s earlier shift of perspective when she brought Godlike “darkness and desolation” to the inhabitants of a tide pool by shading it from the sun (TTL 78), Lily interferes in the “cosmogony” of the ants by raising a little mountain for them to climb over, and finally identifies with the communal colony of ants capable of so many different perspectives: “One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with” (201).


            Part I of To the Lighthouse features many of the iconic garden flowers of Woolf’s own childhood: the escallonia hedge, evening primroses, jacamani clematis, pampas grass, passion flower, red-hot pokers.  In Part II, we see the hybridization of the garden as “Poppies sowed themselves among the dahlias,” “giant artichokes towered among the roses; a fringed carnation flowered among the cabbages” and the red-hot pokers are overgrown by nettles (TTL 141-2).  In Part III, all that is left is the lowly plantain.  And yet that last survivor is known for its ability to cure, an emblem of gentle healing that parallels the reconciliation of the visit to the lighthouse and the synthesis of Lily’s finished painting.



[4] These literary allusions are noted in a contemporary herbalist blog, “Gathering Ground”: http://www.gatheringground.nyc/new-blog-1/2018/3/27/plantain-natures-first-aid-kit

Accessed 2/22/21


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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...