Plantain: A Plain Plant with a Powerful Punch

Meet plantain. It may not be the flashiest herb in the bunch, but plantain’s myriad uses award it the highest acclaim.

Photo by Devon Young

Plantain (Plantago major, P. lanceolate) is inevitably an herb that most people have seen, but haven’t given any thought to. Its deeply veined leaves often blend in with blades of grass (especially the narrow-leaf variety), and the only real sign there’s something different afoot is when the slender flower stalks, with their cone-shaped plumes, rise above the denser vegetation below. Plantain is the proverbial wallflower of the herbal medicine world. It’s simply not going to jump right out and snag your attention with flowers, thorns, or flashy foliage. Plantain — also known as “ripple grass,” “snakeweed,” Englishman’s foot,” and “ribwort” — has a quiet, dutiful demeanor, and is an indispensable plant ally for oh-so-many reasons. What it lacks in botanical pizzazz, it makes up for in its abundant medicinal virtues. Plantain is a soft-spoken hero that doesn’t ask for thanks, but deserves the recognition.

A Multipurpose Plant

If you had to boil down the medicinal attributes of plantain, the reductionist outcome would be that it’s a drawing herb. The leaves are used to draw out heat, infection, venom, phlegm, excess fluid, and more. Plantain is the friend that comes over to your house when you’re overwhelmed by a mess, and knows exactly what needs to be discarded. It removes what’s out of place and repairs all the physical damage it’s exposed to. It’s my favorite herb for drawing out splinters, stickers, and stingers that are deep in the skin, making it perfect for little ones who tremble with fear at the sight of tweezers or needles used for extraction. It’s also extremely soothing, and provides itch relief for bug bites and rashes. Older texts refer to its use with treating snake and rabid dog bites — though please consider this but an herbal first aid on your way to getting immediate medical attention, rather than an alternative to conventional care.

Plantain’s gentle yet effective astringent properties make it an excellent herb for coughs, cold symptoms, and seasonal allergies. Its energetics are cool in the leaf and moist in the seed. Weepy, watery eyes and runny noses seem to respond well to plantain, as do thick, hot, productive coughs and swollen, painful lymph nodes. Other indications point to its use to draw infection from oral abscesses of the teeth and gums. This herb can also bring relief to hemorrhoids when applied as a poultice or as a sitz bath. Overall, plantain can be used as an anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, anti-obtrusive, astringent, a demulcent, diuretic, expectorant, hepatic, nutritive, and vulnerary.

Photo by Getty Images/seven75

Plantain use extends to the fiber-rich seeds, known as psyllium. Psyllium is commonly sold as a fiber supplement, and can be effective for treating complaints of the lower bowel, such as constipation, colitis, Crohn’s disease, and dysentery. Additionally, numerous studies have found that the seeds help reduce cholesterol levels and hyperlipidemia, as well as hyperglycemia, while having positive effects on the cardiovascular system.

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