Plantago major L., a popular traditional Chinese medicine, has long been used for treating various diseases varying from cold to viral hepatitis. The aim of present study was to examine the antiviral activity of aqueous extract and pure compounds of P. major. Studies were conducted on a series of viruses, namely herpesviruses (HSV-1, HSV-2) and adenoviruses (ADV-3, ADV-8, ADV-11). The antiviral activity of EC50 was defined as the concentration achieved 50% cyto-protection against virus infection and the selectivity index (SI) was determined by the ratio of CC50 (concentration of 50% cellular cytotoxicity) to EC50. Results showed that aqueous extract of P. major possessed only a slight anti-herpes virus activity. In contrast, certain pure compounds belonging to the five different classes of chemicals found in extracts of this plant exhibited potent antiviral activity. Among them, caffeic acid exhibited the strongest activity against HSV-1 (EC50=15.3 microg/ml, SI=671), HSV-2 (EC50=87.3 microg/ml, SI=118) and ADV-3 (EC50=14.2 microg/ml, SI=727), whereas chlorogenic acid possessed the strongest anti-ADV-11 (EC50=13.3 microg/ml, SI=301) activity. The present study concludes that pure compounds of P. major, which possess antiviral activities are mainly derived from the phenolic compounds, especially caffeic acid. Its mode of action against HSV-2 and ADV-3 was found to be at multiplication stages (postinfection of HSV-1: 0-12 h; ADV-3: 0-2 h), and with SI values greater than 400, suggesting the potential use of this compound for treatment of the infection by these two viruses.