White man’s footsteps – weed or something more?
By Carol / August 18, 2023 /
I’m always delighted to learn something new. Even better when I’m totally surprised by the discovery. This week, I was surprised and delighted to find that a plant I’d always considered nothing more than a weed, was actually a much more desirable plant: White man’s footsteps.
I’ve been reading Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book sharing indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants. A scientist, professor and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Kimmerer writes in such a way that I yearn to be as connected to nature as she.
When my husband and I moved to an acreage 16 years ago, I set about establishing a prairie. Over years, the desired forbs and grasses emerged. I relished each new native plant I identified. Weeds (plants not on my native seed list) also appeared. I admit I looked at the weeds with annoyance, removing them if they were invasive and letting them remain if they were not.
One such weed was one I’ve seen all my life, from the Iowa farm where I grew up to the yard of every home I’ve ever owned. A weed so common and harmless I never even sought to identify it.
Kimmerer brought this “weed” to my attention in a chapter about becoming indigenous to place. She explained that Natives called the plant “White man’s footsteps,” because it was introduced by Europeans when they came to this continent. She described the plant as: “a low circle of leaves, pressed close to the ground with no stem to speak of.”
Upon reading the plant description, I immediately sought out images and realized I knew this plant and had seen it recently. There is a White man’s footsteps growing not 15 feet from my back door.
White man’s footsteps is the common plantain. While Kimmerer says Native people were originally distrustful of the plant considering who brought it, they came to see it had many valuable uses. The leaves can make a poultice to treat cuts, burns, and insect bites, to stop bleeding and heal wounds without infection. The seeds are medicine for digestion. A nutritious food, the leaves may be eaten raw when they are young and tender, and cooked when they are older and tougher. Kimmerer said that while White man’s footsteps is not native to North America, it has proved itself useful over 500 years and so joins us as a ‘naturalized’ native plant.
I cannot think of White man’s footsteps as an annoying weed anymore. It is so much more. Quite likely part of the next salad I make.