Mountain woods and meadows are full of toys for any child with eyes to see. Skipping stones across a creek or running alongside a fence, stick in hand, clacking the fenceposts—these pastimes are available any time of year.
But the summer meadow has always held special treasures. Two of the best just happen to grow cheek by jowl: the clover, endless provider of necklaces white or red, and the English Plantain.
Before the advent of the manicured lawn, in which the plantain is an unwanted guest, mountaineers viewed this marvelous plant through very different eyes.
“Plantain is a vulnerary (a wound plant), and in everyday use it is excellent for relief of stings and bruises, and an alleviant for nettle stings,” says Bill Church in Medicinal Plants, Trees, & Shrubs of Appalachia – A Field Guide. “Traditionally, leaf tea used for coughs, diarrhea, dysentery, and blood urine. Leaves applied to blisters, sores, ulcers, swelling; also used for earaches and eye ailments; thought to reduce heat and pain of inflammation.”
In addition to its medicinal uses, English plantain (also known as buckhorn plantain) helped keep backwoods aviary inhabitants chirping; the seeds are often eaten by songbirds.
This common European perennial has been naturalized worldwide; Native Americans from Massachusetts first noticed it seemed to spring up wherever the Europeans settled in the New World, and the nickname “white man’s foot’ or “Englishman’s foot” has stuck ever since.
But back to plants kids can make toys from. The plantain’s botanical name is ‘plantago lanceolata,’ and that ‘lance’ part has a special attraction for mountain boys at play, who prefer to call it the ‘shooter plant.’
If you’re going to fire one of these little devils at your buddies, you’ve got to select carefully. Look for a seed head that has NOT blossomed yet! It should be tightly formed and look like a bullet (photo #1).
If the seed head is long and rangy, it just will not pop off the stem when you go to shoot it (photo #2). Select a stem long enough that you can break it into two halves about 8-9 inches apiece (photo #3).
Fold the stem piece without the seed head in half, and thread the other piece through it (photo #4). As you can see, it reminds one a bit of the bow & arrow, and that’s exactly the way to shoot the seed head off. You have to squeeze the folded piece together tight enough so that the seedhead doesn’t simply pull through it.
This is one of those childhood arts, like whistling with two fingers under your tongue, or riding a bike, that you simply have to learn by trial & error. No amount of written instruction, diagrams, or photos can ever replace that.
sources: Medicinal Plants, Trees, & Shrubs of Appalachia – A Field Guide, by Bill Church, Lulu.com, 2006