BĀRHANG (also bārtang),plantain, is a general, imprecise name for about 27 species of Plantago L.(family Plantaginaceae; see Parsa, IV, pp. 240-67) in Iran, particularly P. major L., the greater plantain, P. lanceolata L. (= P. minor L.), the lesser plantain, P. ovata Forsk., and P. psyllium L., fleawort.
Unmistakably, the rich pharmacognosy of Plantago was incorporated into Islamic medicine from Greek sources: Medical-botanical authors of the Islamic era (e.g., Ebn Sīnā, II, p. 203, Heravī, pp. 299-300) repeat more or less fully the descriptions and therapeutic indications found in Galen and, more especially, in Dioscorides, with some minor additions or modifications; even the commonest Arabic name for the plantain (also the standard name in Persian sources), lesān al-ḥamal (lit. “lamb tongue”), is a calque of its Greek name arnóglōsson (two other, uncommon, Arabic synonyms, ḏū sabʿat ażlāʿ and kaṯīr al-ażlāʿ, are translations of Dioscorides’ heptapleuron “seven-ribbed” and polupleuron “many-ribbed,” respectively, the reference being to the number of veins in each leaf blade of P. major). One of the common Arabic names for P. psyllium, ḥašīšat al-barāḡīṯ (lit. “fleas’ herb”), is an adaptation of Dioscorides’ psullion (lit. “flea-like”), alluding to the resemblance in shape and color of its seeds to fleas.
The Iranian names for Plantago, however, do not show any trace of the Greek terminology. In addition to bārhang/bārtang for the (greater) plantain, we have esparza/esfarza (in current use in Iran, perhaps originally a dialectal Isfahani term), ḵargūšak (lit. “the little donkey ear,” mentioned by Bīrūnī, p. 331 of the Ar. text), and the now obsolete (dialectal?) Persian asb-/esba-ḡūl/ḡol (or asp-/espa-, lit. “horse ear,” this name, or variants thereof, however, seems to be still in use in Indian bāzārs; see Dymock et al., III, pp. 126-27) for P. psyllium. (For some other names of the plantain—Arabic, Persian, etc.—see Dehḵodā, Loḡat-nāma, s.vv. bārtang and bārhang, and Parsa, VIII, pp. 144-45.)
Galen mentions a few and Dioscorides about thirty medicinal properties and uses of Plantago.As to its “active nature,” Galen (as quoted by Ebn al-Bayṭār, pt. 4, p. 107; tr. pp. 435f.) states that the plantain embodies both “cold moistness” and astringency. Of the various uses recommended by Dioscorides (as quoted by Ebn al-Bayṭār, ibid., pp. 107-08) the following may be mentioned here: Eating cooked plantain with vinegar and salt helps against intestinal ulcers and chronic diarrhea; (in a poultice) it is good for suppurative wounds, deep wounds, scrofula in the neck, tonsillitis, burns, etc.; eating cooked plantain helps cure epilepsy and asthma; the expressed juice of the leaves is good for oral inflammations, earache, hemoptysis and some other pulmonary ailments; chewing the cooked roots soothes toothache; eating its cooked roots and leaves is a remedy against pains in the kidneys and the bladder (for the cumulative traditional Greek, Arab, Persian, and Indian pharmacognosy of the lesān al-ḥamal,see ʿAqīlī Ḵorāsānī, pp. 381-82).
There has been some confusion about the provenance of esbaḡūl/esfarza seeds. For instance, some authorities (e.g., Dymock et al., op. cit.; Chopra, 1930) have identified them as those of P.ovata Forsk, while the majority of the authors consider them to be those of P. psyllium L. The confusion is mainly due to the resemblance (in shape and some medical properties) of the various seeds involved. However, the synonymy of Gk. psullion = Ar. ḥašīšat al-barāḡīṯ = Syr./Ar. bazr gaṭūnā/bezr qoṭūnā = Pers. esbaḡūl/esfarza, found in some classical sources, seems to corroborate the latter view. According to Dioscorides (4.69), psullion is good for arthritis, headache, edema, tumors, erysipelas, and for clearing ulcers and running ears. These properties are reflected in Islamic sources (Arabic and Persian) under the standard heading bezrqaṭūnā (arabicized from Syriac).
Nowadays it seems that the therapeutic utilization of the common plantain and the fleawort in Iran and some neighboring countries is limited to the use of the dried ripe seeds in a few cases, especially against diarrhea and dysentery (in India, Iran, Iraq). This is probably the oldest recognized main use of the plantain, since Pliny already states that both the greater and the lesser plantains are very effective against “rheumatismi” (25.39) or “intestinal complaints” (26.47; cf. Dymock et al., op. cit., p. 128). In Iran, plantain seeds in an infusion with the mucilaginous seeds of three other plants—Sisymbrium alliaria Scop., quince, and Cordia mixa L.—are used as a demulcent and expectorant in some pulmonary ailments, this popular traditional compound is called č(ah)ār-toḵm(a),lit. “the four seeds.” The esbaḡūl/esfarza seeds are used in the treatment of chronic dysentery (in the Indian subcontinent), as a coolant (mobarred), (in a poultice) against erysipelas (bād-e sorḵ), and to speed up the maturation of boils and abscesses (in Iran).
M.-Ḥ. ʿAqīlī Ḵorāsānī, Maḵzan al-adwīa,Tehran, 1276/1859-60, repr. 1349 Š./1970.
Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī, Al-Bīrūnī’s Book on Pharmacy and Materia Medica, ed. and tr. Hakim Mohammed Said, Karachi, 1973.
R. N. Chopra, “Plantago Ovata—Ispaghul—in Chronic Diarrhœas and Dysenteries,” Indian Medical Gazette 65, 1930, p. 628.
Idem, Chopra’s Indigenous Drugs of India,2nd revised ed., Calcutta, 1958, pp. 379-85.
Dioscorides, The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides,Eng. tr. John Goodyear (a.d. 1655), ed. R. T. Gunther, New York, 1959, p. 70.
W. Dymock, C. J. H. Warden, and D. Hooper, Pharmacographia Indica, 3 vols., London, etc., 1890-93, repr. Karachi, 1972, III, pp. 127-29.
Ebn al-Bayṭār, al-Jāmeʿ,4 pts. in 2 vols., Būlāq, 1291/1874.
Ebn Sīnā, Qānūn dar ṭebb II,tr. ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Šarafkandī, Tehran, 1362 Š./1983-84.
Mowaffeq-al-Dīn ʿAlī Heravī, Ketāb al-abnīa ʿan ḥaqāʾeq al-adwīa,ed. A. Bahmanyār and Ḥ. Maḥbūbī Ardakānī, Tehran, 1346 Š./1967-68.
Muhammad Najmal-Ghani Khan, Ḵazāʾen al-adwīa I, 1st ed., Lucknow, 1971, pp. 660-61, s.v. bārtung kē bīj (bārhang seeds).
A. Parsa, Flore de l’Iran, Tehran, IV, 1949, and VIII, 1960.
(Hakim M. Said)
Originally Published: December 15, 1988
Last Updated: December 15, 1988
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Vol. III, Fasc. 8, pp. 796-797