searching the world for traces of white man’s footprint

From her temporary home in Copenhagen, Canadian PhD student Natalie Eva Iwanycki is searching the world for traces of "white man's footprint."

From her temporary home in Copenhagen, Canadian PhD student Natalie Eva Iwanycki is searching the world for traces of “white man’s footprint.”

Over millennia, this “footprint,” which is also known as Plantago major, has reached every continent except Antarctica, Iwanycki says. The broad-leaved plantain has acquired a plethora of names in the process.

North American First Nation people noticed that the common weed apparently flourished in the wake of European travellers, hence the “footprint” tag.

Iwanycki’s thesis, “Plantago major L. Travel tales of a worldwide weed, ” is designed to answer some fascinating and pressing questions. As the botanist says in an email, she hopes “to reveal just where in the world this species came from and approximately where it landed and became established in new parts of the world.”

“I hope to be able to answer the question of native versus introduced status for some of the varieties – like the putatively native variety (Plantago major var. pilgeri) in Canada,” she adds. “I believe this type of information will really assist plant conservation strategies and priorities in the North.”

Iwanycki’s goal is to gather collections of these plants and samples of the soil they grow in at 50 sites world-wide – in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.

Among the researchers out collecting for the project is Yukon botanist Bruce Bennett. Bennett enthusiastically supplies one reason the plant may have been carried from place to place by human pioneers: “If ever you are stung by a wasp, you pick a leaf. It sucks the poison out and takes the pain away.”

“I’ve used it many times with many people. It works better than anything I’ve ever seen,” he adds.

“If something evolved in the Yukon, and was here along with mammoths and what not, it is probably genetically adapted,” says Bennett. A plant well adapted to a specific locality contains more of the genetic information required for survival there than a plant recently introduced. “At least that’s what the belief is. And things that are native tend to be of more conservation concern.”

While Iwanycki’s research targets the hows and whys of Plantago major peregrinations, she is also investigating the diversity of medicinal compounds produced by the plant – wherever it appears. “We are collecting soil samples from each site around the world along with other habitat data so that we could explore whether it is the plant’s genetics (i.e. the genotype) or if it is the local habitat (environment) that explains leaf-chemical diversity.”

The plant produces these leaf chemicals to discourage herbivores, “so there is a wider ecology angle to this part of the study,” she says.

Plantago major can create headaches for scientists hoping to determine distinct varieties within the species. It can be difficult to determine if a variety is native to a region or has been introduced.

Did plants arrive in North America with Europeans from the east or from the west? From both directions or neither? Are they native in one part of Canada – or even the Yukon – and not another?

“Some speculate that Vikings used common plantain as one of their herbal medicines … It is possible that the plant followed Vikings around Europe and potentially travelled with them all the way to eastern North America,” says Iwanycki.

“Whether this transport was intentional (as part of their medicine kits) or unintentional (as a hitchhiker getting a ride on shoes or tools) we don’t know. There is some thought that Russians could have brought common plantain to western North America during their early visits in the 1740s.”

Bennett has been collecting Plantago major from all over the North. He has found several apparent variations, but when he subjected the plants to genetic bar coding, there was no difference. “Everything that we had was all identical!”

There was no hard, fast answer to whether Plantago major L. or Plantago major var. pilgeri was recently introduced or if they’d long ago cushioned the footsteps of Arctic mammals. More advanced genetic sequencing techniques may soon be brought to bear on this northern distribution conundrum.

Bennett found the plantain in the Far North when he first visited Old Crow in 1995. “It was interesting that there weren’t any other introduced plants found in the community at that time. Usually, if something is introduced there are other non-native plants associated with it,” he says.

Back in 1995, in many (far northern) places he could find Plantago major but he couldn’t find any other introduced species.

“So when Natalie contacted me and said that she’s interested in how Plantago spread around the world, looking at archeological and anthropological data, as well as doing some detailed genetics work on it, I thought, ‘Wow! This would be great!’”

More than 40 varieties of Plantago major have been described, primarily by the German botanist Robert Pilger in the early 20th century, says Iwanycki.

“That said, most botanists and taxonomists only recognize a small number of varieties,” she stresses. “We hope that this project will shed some light on the real diversity of the species.”

One of the first things a botanist learns upon tackling Plantago major is that laypersons can be confounded by the fact these Plantago varieties are referred to as plantains. “When I told my mother I would be studying common plantain, the first thing she thought of was green bananas!” says Iwanycki.

Her mother is not alone in her confusion.

Plantain is the common English name for the weedy healer of the genus Plantago, but it is also applied “to tropical plants that produce starchy green bananas in the genus Musa,” the botanist says. “Musa and Plantago are classified in completely different plant families…”.

When confronted by a healing plant that has picked up as many as 140 names during its travels, one has to be grateful for the trusty, if dry, Latin binomials. When confronted by a bee, one has to thank goodness for this hearty and widespread weed, whatever the locals – or scientists – may call it.

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College.

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