Plantago major used to be greeted with more respect than it gets in today's world. It was part of an herbal apothecary that the majority of the people grew as part of their healing garden. This unassuming and sometimes invasive weed (which is how we now know it) has medicinal qualities that folks in earlier times relied upon daily. It considered one of the Nine Sacred Herbs of the Ancient Saxons and is still known as Slan-lus in the Highlands of Scotland, which translates to 'plant of healing'. The ancient Romans knew it, as did the even more ancient Mesopotamians.
Broadleaf plantain grows in low rosettes, often in sunny, waste places and disturbed ground. Originally native to eastern Europe and Eurasia, it has naturalized world-wide. Lance-leaf plantain, Plantago lanceolata is a closely related species with many of the same properties. It also grows in low rosettes in the same type of conditions, however, the leaves are narrower and the blooming stalks differ. People used both of these plants hundreds of years ago for many purposes.
Plantains are edible and the young leaves are often used as a potherb. They do get tough and stringy as they age, but in earlier times, they were often harvested when people were foraging for the earliest greens after a long winter with no fresh food. The leaves have significant amounts of riboflavin, Vitamin B1 and Vitamin C. Even the seeds are used, although they are so tiny, that it takes a long time to gather enough to be significant. They are a good source of fiber and the early folks used the ground seeds as a flour extender.
However, it is in the medical field where this plant shines. The leaves are antibacterial, astringent, anti-inflammatory, an expectorant and have haemostatic qualities (they stop bleeding.) Early uses included treatments for asthma, coughs, ulcers, irritable bowel, fevers and a vermifuge (this means it can get rid of worms and intestinal parasites.). Modern medicine has validated many of these properties including adding it to preparations to help smokers quit.
Some of the earliest uses are more folklore than folk medicine though. Plantain was thought to cure leprosy and rabies, which it absolutely cannot do. Native peoples also believed that carrying the root with them would ward off snakes and pouring the powdered root into a snakebite would neutralize venom.
While it isn't advisable to ingest any plant you are not sure of and to treat yourself for medical conditions without a doctor's guidance, hikers should familiarize themselves with these plants because they can be quite handy if trail mishaps occur. The crushed leaves applied to wounds help stop bleeding and also soothe bug bites and poison ivy.
On top of all of the benefits for humans, Plantago is also a host plant for a number of butterflies. Some of the more familiar ones that use it are the Common Buckeye, the Painted Ladies and the Crescents. So, leaving a few plants at the edge of the driveway is helping them out. If you can't bear the weeds, several ornamental cultivars have been developed that you can add to your perennial border. Plant it in a sunny place and let it grow. Dead head the flower stalks if you do not want seedlings.
Knowing about your local weeds is fun and also necessary.. You never know when this knowledge might help in an emergency.