What is most remarkable is how Plantain may act as a role model for other non-native species on how to conduct themselves on new territories and lands. It patiently offers us lessons on how to support original inhabitants, not disturb the existing balance, and conduct oneself as an uninvited guest in someone else’s home.
The other sacred medicinal plants listed in “The Nine Herbs Prayer” are Mugwort, Nettle, Shepherd’s Purse, Betony, Chamomile, Crab Apple, Chervil, and Fennel. The prayer treats each as a sentient subject, imagining that the plant is being spoken to and revered. Plantain is addressed as the “plant mother” and its ancient name is explained: “over you chariots creaked / over you queens rode / over you brides trampled / over you oxen snorted / This all you then with stood / and dashed apart / as you withstand / poison and infection / and that evil / that fares through the land.”2 2 - « The Nine Herbs Prayer from the Lacnunga », Wyrtig: For Gardeners with a Sense of History, www.wyrtig.com/GardenFolklore/NineHerbsPrayer.htm
“Waybroad,” refers to Plantain’s tenacity in growing along heavily trodden “ways,” greeting travellers, and withstanding the traffic of trails and pathways. “Broad3 3 - Jimmy Fike, “Artist Statement” https://www.jimmyfike.com/artist-statement-c-v. ” sometimes spelled bread or brade in medieval Latin or Old English translations, refers to the flat full leaves of the plant — its most prized, nutrient-rich and medicinal element. This European prayer preserves the old ways where plants and the natural world were revered before Christianity, capital, and industry. In the following centuries, herbal medicines and pagan remedies in Europe would become the property of male doctors — professionals trained in inaccessible academies. Meanwhile, folk practitioners would eventually be ostracized and executed as witches. Medicinal plant knowledge was the natural forebear of modern chemical medicines. Today these practices and other old ways are remembered by artists, naturalists, and Indigenous knowledge holders.
American photographer Jimmy Fike raises awareness about edible plants and herbalism that we overlook in our daily lives. In his ongoing series Photographic Survey of the Wild Edible Botanicals of the North American Continent(2008–ongoing), Fike has amassed images of over one hundred and forty specimens, each presented in an iconic style. His photographs blend the tradition of taxonomic botanical drawings with digital art. The images are digitally altered to a monotone grey scale, draining the plant subjects of their life and thus highlighting the plants’ contour and shape — a staple of early botanical and natural history renderings. Then, Fike adds colour back into each image to identify the part of the plant that is useful or safe for human consumption. For example, the grey botanical slide may highlight green tender shoots, red plump berries, or supple yellow petals as the artwork turns from image into model. as the artwork turns from image into model. In Plantain (2014), he highlights the broad green leaves, a nutritious medicine and a multifunctional salve. The alteration of these photographs transforms their subjects from lifeless botanical specimens into gifts to be used when we are hungry or sick. Through this aesthetic choice, the images become a functional guide for the forager, passing on lost knowledge from a time before grocery stores and global food imports. Fike’s manipulation through digital photography takes these plant specimens beyond their references from botanical sciences and into offerings for our nourishment. His photographic project gestures to a larger body of knowledge in the natural world that is unknown—or, rather, sometimes guarded by Indigenous practitioners. Photographic Survey invites contemporary viewers to sustain themselves from the earth, but Indigenous herbalists and knowledge keepers have preserved these practices and larger systems of land stewardship for much longer.
The correlation between sky and earth, or above and below, is an important underlying cultural theme in Ojibwe star knowledge and reflects the four seasons for growing and harvesting4. 4 - Annette S. Lee, William Wilson, Jeffrey Tibbetts, and Carl Gawboy, Ojibwe Sky Star Map — Constellation Guide: An Introduction to Ojibwe Star Knowledge (Minneapolis: Birchbark Books, 2014), 1–4. 1-4.. Sky and land are interwoven, making it impossible to separate plant knowledge from cosmology. The structure of Indigenous languages will not allow spirit stories to turn inanimate; place names and plant names refer to learned stories and lived ancestral experiences. The common “weed” Plantain is known by a different name to Indigenous communities. Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer describes Plantain’s abundance in the so-called New World, which garnered it the name “White Man’s Footsteps.”5 5 - Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 213. 213. .These are indigenous species of Plantain, such as Ginebigowashk/ Omakakiibag/Mashkiigobag (Plantago rugelli), but its intrusive kin is the most widely found, as evidenced in its name associating it with colonization.6 6 - Mary Siisip Geniusz, Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do is Ask: Anishinaabe Botanical Teachings (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 201. 201. As an introduced species, its tendency to grow along trails meant that it followed technologies of colonization such as trade routes, train tracks, and roads. Eventually, Indigenous peoples learned of the healing gifts of the alien species and adopted it as their own. Within the homes of many Indigenous families, basic plant medicine is common knowledge. Sharing medicinal properties of plants or their sacred meanings is understated but acknowledges the active role of preserving, protecting, and caretaking. Plantain is included in the ethno-botany anthology Medicines to Help Us: Traditional Métis Plant Use, in which it is listed as an alterative, antiseptic, astringent, and diuretic.7 7 - Christi Belcourt, Rita Flamand, Olive Whitford, Laura Burnof, and Rose Richardson, Medicines to Help Us: Traditional Métis Plant Use: Study Prints and Resource Guide (Saskatoon: Gabriel Dumont Institute, 2007), 38–39. 38-39. Plantain is a unique newcomer in the landscape of Turtle Island. Despite the systemic violence that came with its introduction, Plantain has “naturalized” itself in new ecologies. In its new environments it does not interfere with others or parasitically attack resources or nutrients. Kimmerer writes that unlike other “immigrant plants,” which have the “colonizing habit of taking over other’s homes and growing without regard to limits,”8 8 - Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 214.Plantain makes use of undesirable habitat. At the same time, it offers its new hosts many gifts, such as sustenance and medicine. Its common usage in poultices matches its chosen habitat. Plantain’s abundance on the trails of Turtle Island make it a convenient remedy for potential insect bites.
In modern and urban contexts the mapping of place — what grows and happens within spaces—is maintained by artist-activists who are contemporary knowledge keepers intervening in colonial systems of wayfinding. Conserving epistemological truths requires community stewardship. Societies that carry sacred wisdom thrive upon intergenerational knowledge transfer, which grows more difficult as extractive colonial violence is repeatedly perpetrated upon communities. To protect from exploitation, medicine societies convene secretly underground like an interconnected web of roots. Common plant medicines remain hidden in plain sight like resilient “weeds.” The small, humble Plantain features prominently among Indigenous flora in some of Christi Belcourt’s compositions, such as Ontario Roots (2007), a personal commission that celebrates the ecosystems and botany of Penetanguishene. Plantain plays a central role in the composition, framing Indigenous plant species such as Cattail, Trillium, Maple, Pine, Sumac, Fiddleheads, and various berries. Its placement in the composition echoes the qualities that Kimmerer admires; it is present in case of need but not the main focus. It flanks and supports the Indigenous species in the centre, tucked neatly into the corners. Its roots even seem just slightly out of touch from all the native flora, which are connected below the earth’s surface. Even though they are out of reach of the Indigenous plants, the two Plantain bundles seem to be waiting to be called upon for their assistance when needed.
Despite its introduction, Plantain has “naturalized” itself on Turtle Island. It asks for little space, its healing properties make it a useful settler, and it peacefully coexists in the natural order and biodiversity. As a squatter in new territory, it has come to be appreciated and beneficial. Mohawk scholar Ruth Koleszar-Green complexifies the violent tendencies and familiar excusals for settler-colonialism by reinstating humility into the exchange. She posits that a “guest–host” relationship is a useful philosophical paradigm to repair centuries of physical damage and ideological malice. Here, hosts demonstrate their utmost hospitality to the weary, and guests should conduct themselves respectfully, with goodwill and generosity.9 9 - Ruth Koleszar-Green, “What is a Guest? What is a Settler?,” Cultural and Pedagogical Inquiry 10, no. 2 (2018): Spirit and Heart, https://journals.library.ualberta.ca/cpi/index.php/cpi/article/view/29452/21463.
Unlike the human-invader species, Plantain acts in accordance with others’ laws and protocols. It goes where it is permitted and provides assistance when needed. This humble intruder is truly a teacher in patience and virtue. It continually works to make its hosts comfortable, nourished, and soothed, just as it did for its old worshippers. Even when not being called upon for its gifts, Plantain continuously performs a solidarity work of sorts. Its root systems purify the soil and pull out toxins as it nourishes the environment of its adopted home. Plantain acts to make its new setting cleaner and more comfortable, not just for itself but for everyone.
Belcourt and Fike draw our attention to the overlooked natural world. Their art practices centre the humble plants in our natural, artificial, wild, and urban ecosystems. The next time you step out into the world you may find Plantain bravely growing amongst the sidewalk stones or densely packed developed earth. Fike invites us to foster a relationship with the land in which we care for it and, in return, it cares for us. Belcourt’s large body of work continuously points to the interconnections of life, ecological webs that human beings are not removed from. Further, Belcourt gestures to the intense symbolism and plant knowledge that is retained by the land and activated by Indigenous stewards and knowledge keepers. Artists have protected, and now disseminate some of the protocols surrounding Indigenous knowledge keeping like family, community, nation, and worldview knowledges.
Plantain, a foreign, modest little plant, may inspire us to think about how to conduct oneself with respect on territories and in spaces where permission was never truthfully acquired. Plantain may not know about the violent histories that brought it to Turtle Island and the ongoing tensions from fossil fuel eco-terrorism. Plantain stories learned through patient listening conjure up lessons in responsible coexistence. This is crucial, as Canada continues its occupation of Indigenous territories, land theft, and routinely negotiates with Indigenous nations through self-made settler-colonial law or militarized police instead of upholding inherent rights or free, prior, and informed consent. This is a lesson that many are still trying to understand, and our greatest teacher may be no farther away than under our shoes.