Materia Medica, Pharmacology & Bio-Prospecting

Dioscorides' De Materia Medica: Comparisons of Plantago major and Plantago minor

Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90 CE) was a Greek physician who wrote De Materia Medica between 50-70 AD (Manktelo 2021, 2). With over 600 plants classified by medicinal use, De Materia Medica was translated multiple times and relied on in the field of medicine until the 16th century. It was first translated into Latin, and later translated into Spanish by Andrés de Laguna in 1555. In this first image, you can see the depictions of Plantago major and Plantago minor side by side (Dioscorides 1555, 209). The text describes the differences in the shape and structure of the leaves, also describing the use of the Plantago species as a defense for the forehead and temples.
What is interesting to note is that there is no species called Plantago minor today. For instance, in a contemporary English translation of De Materia Medica, the mirror image of Plantago minor from Leonhart Fuchs’ De Historia Stirpium (Fuchs 1542, 39) is used to represent what is now called Plantago media (Osbaldeston and Wood 2000, 299). The text is analogous to the Spanish translation, although it uses the name Plantago media in place of Plantago minor.

In Pietro Andrea Matthioli’s translation of De Materia Medica in Latin the images compared are also Plantago major and Plantago media (Matthioli 1565, 179). Scholars have noted that the images from Matthioli’s translation are very similar to Laguna’s translation from 1555, indicating that the images represent the same species, despite the differing names (Dioscorides 1555). While the Matthioli version does have thinner flowers, the images both have tall stems, narrower leaves, and small flowers, and the differences could simply be due to the season in which the artwork was created.

The similarity between the images, as well as confirmation from the Journal of The Linnaean Society of London Botany suggests that Plantago media and Plantago minor were classified as the same plant in the 16th century, before Linnaean classification was popularized (Sprague 1931, 91). Today, this species is known as Plantago lanceolata, which is different from the contemporary accepted species of Plantago media. The classification of the Plantago species has played an important role in the use of these plants today, as without this standardization in naming, it would have been incredibly difficult to combine the separate literatures for Plantago minor and Plantago media.


“Carolus Linnæus, Species Plantarum.” Special Collections. University of Aberdeen. Accessed June 1, 2021.
Dioscorides, Pedanius. 1555. De Materia Medica. Translated by Andrés de Laguna. From World Digital Library:
Fuchs, Leonhart. 1542. “De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes: Maximis Impensis Et Uigiliis Elaborati, Adiectis Earundem Uiuis Plusquam Quingentis...” University of Cambridge Digital Library. Accessed June 1, 2021.
Manktelow, Mariette. 2021. “History of Taxonomy,”
Matthioli, Pietro Andrea. 1565. “Senensis Medici, Commentarii in Sex Libros Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei De Medica Materia.” Biodiversity Heritage Library. Ex Officina Valgrisiana,
Osbaldeston, TA, and RPA Wood. 2000. De Materia Medica. Johannesburg: Ibidis Press. From Internet Archive:
Sprague, T. A. 1931. “The Herbal of Otto Brunfels.” The Journal Of The Linnean Society Of London Botany Vol. 48: 79-124. From Internet Archive:

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