11 October 2007

White Man's Foot

There are a million grasses in this city and, yes, each species has its own story.

Though individual plants often just survive a season or two, the biological heritage of each species reaches back hundreds of years.

For example, some grasses were brought over by European settlers as forage for livestock (i.e., Reed Canary Grass or Phalaris arundinacea). Others were ornamental grasses brought over from Asia (Chinese Silver Grass, Miscanthus sinensi) then "escaped" from gardens and ended up growing along highways. (I do like the idea of runaway grass, making a fast break from a rich man's landscape and heading out to the highway).

The history of Plantain Major or broad-leaved plantain is a good example. OK, it's not a grass (but it appears in Lauren Brown’s Grasses: An Identification Guide). It is a common weed you can find easily in lots and roadsides in the United States, including the Bay Area.

Plantain major was brought to the states by Europeans who valued it for its medicinal qualities. It was said to cure everything, including epilepsy, hemorrhoids, and ulcers. References to Plantain major appear in Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Native Americans called the plant White Man's Foot or Englishman's Foot because it seemed to spring up wherever the Europeans settled in the New World.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow refers to White Man’s Foot in his 1855 poem “Hiawatha”:

Wheresoe'er they move, before them
Swarms the stinging fly, the Ahmo,
Swarms the bee, the honey-maker;
Wheresoe'er they tread, beneath them
Springs a flower unknown among us,
Springs the White-man's Foot in blossom.

(Photo from David Three Rats' photostream via Flickr)


Ron Lutsko, Jr. said...

Did you see the white mans foot distributed throughout the disturbed areas of the site in Capay? It grows commonly there and naturalizes extensively. Has star thistle come onto your radar screen as it relates to grasses and the vernacular landscape? I discovered a remarkably beautiful silver-blue form of Elymus glaucus in Dry Creek Valley last spring - I now have plants and will introduce it to the Capay Oaks Farm site. I will try to send you an image. Are you aware of Hedgerow Farms? John and Marsha Anderson are the owners and they are the largest growers of native grasses (for seed and plugs) in the state. We helped them with their landscape and are good friends as a result. Their place is on the way to our farm from the Bay Area and I would enjoy introducing you to the place....especially nice in May and June before they harvest seed when you can see many species in flower/seed. If interested, put it on your calendar and remind me 6 weeks before you want to visit. I would very much enjoy that and suspect you would as well. I know many native grassland sites throughout the western U.S. and have quite a few constructed meadow projects around the bay area. If you are interested in visiting any of these as well just say the word - I am always looking for an excuse to get out and learn more about the landscape. I too am fascinated by the relationship between grassesands and human use/occupation. Good to see you yesterday and you and your family are welcome back any time.

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