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.
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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.
Plantain is an herb that can be used in a variety of ways. Teas, tinctures, and oil infusions for salve-making are popular methods of preparation. Perhaps one of the simplest methods of use is the “spit poultice” — chewed leaves applied to spots of irritation and heat. If this method feels a bit too unsanitary, you can also prepare a poultice using water or by juicing the leaves. Because of its vulnerary nature, the poultice is ideal for use on cuts and scrapes — especially those incurred while wrangling blackberries, as my experience would suggest! Psyllium seeds can be soaked in liquids and added to smoothies.
Note: Plantain is widely regarded as safe. If pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription medication, consult with your physician before taking this or any other herb. People with certain bowel conditions should avoid fibers, such as psyllium.
In Plain Sight!
Plantain is a perennial that grows in lawns and pastures where the water is plentiful, but not soggy. It typically stands 4 to 6 inches tall, and can be mistaken for a look-alike, Hosta (Hosta spp.), also known as “plantain lily.”
Depending on the particular species, plantain leaves can be long and lance-shaped (P. lanceolata) or more rounded with a pointed tip resembling a small Hosta leaf (P. major). Plantago leaves are deeply ribbed and form a basal rosette. Its flower and seed forms an upright spike topped with a brown cone with small, white, inconspicuous flowers.
It’s altogether likely that you’re, in fact, currently growing plantain in your yard. If not, seeds can be sown in the spring in a sunny to partly shady location that’ll receive frequent watering but has well- drained soil. Cold stratification may contribute to good germination rates.
Forage or Grow?
Due to the relative ease in which plantain grows in the yard, this is an herb to forage. However, whether grown or foraged, it’s best to harvest plantain from early spring through fall. Discovering useful botanicals in your surrounding area is one of the most sustainable and ecologically sound ways of practicing herbalism. Does your neighbor have sunny calendula spilling out of a garden bed? Are there spires of mullein at the edges of the park? Are petite daisies dotting the elementary school lawn? There’s often more abundance in these traditionally cultivated landscapes than first meets the eye. Side benefits of foraging your neighborhood and urban areas are the conversations and introductions these actions create. Ask an elderly neighbor if you can dig the dandelions in her side yard, and you’ll surely have a friend for life. Inquire with a nearby school about picking up their black walnuts as they drop, and you’re sure to draw the affections of the custodians and groundskeepers. Even abandoned home sites often yield an incredible biodiversity of interesting and medicinal plants.
Photo by Getty Images/benedek
By taking some precautions and talking with your neighbors and property owners or managers, you’ll go far in fostering great relations in your community. While some people might raise an eyebrow as you forage, just as many will be glad to see their plants have a new use and will take interest in what you’re doing.
Ensure that you’re harvesting plantain from areas that are free of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and pet waste. The herb can be used fresh, or dried quickly for future use and oil infusions.
Best Foraging Practices
Stepping out of your own yard and exploring your surrounding neighborhood to forage local Plants can be a truly enlightening experience. But of course, it’s not a free-for-all. There are some very important factors to weigh, such as:
- Do you have express permission to gather and harvest from the property owner?
- Did you offer compensation in some way for use of somebody else’s yard? (I usually offer to share some of the remedy I’m making.)
- Can you take adequate measures to ensure that you minimize impact to another person’s property?
- Is this area free from pesticide and herbicide residue? How has this plant been tended in this yard? While it’s not necessary for the plants to be cared for to the letter of organic farming practices, the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides should be avoided on or near the plant.
- Is the plant at least 50 feet from a major roadway?
- Could the site have contaminated groundwater or soil? This is often the case with industrial sites; don’t harvest from those areas.
- Are these plants free from pet waste?
- What is the source of your plant? If it’s fresh from the nursery stock, it’s often loaded with chemical fertilizers, as well as an increased risk of pesticide and herbicide contamination. I wait at least a year before harvesting from nursery stock for medicinal purposes.
- Did you wash your foraged plants before using them? Even if you’ve followed the above best practices, it’s still a good idea to clean whatever you find outside, just to make sure any extraneous residues, dirt, germs, or anything else doesn’t end up on yourself, in your house, or on your food.
Plantain Poultice for Pulling Splinters, Stingers, and Other Offenders
This spectacularly easy preparation is so effective and safe that everybody needs to know about it. Plantain grows virtually anywhere and it’s so easy to identify — it makes for first aid on the fly when needed. This is a method where there’s no exact measurement. Just make a paste of chopped (or even chewed, in a pinch) plantain and a tiny bit of water, and apply it to an affected area (splinters, stingers, bug bites, etc.) for quick relief!
Photo by Devon Young
It’s easy to fall into the trap of “more is better,” but sometimes the best remedy is the simplest and, more importantly, the one that’s immediately available to you. For example, if you’re spending an afternoon at the park and one of your children gets stung, chances are you won’t have a drawing salve with you in that moment of need. But the likelihood of there being some plantain growing nearby is great. The best medicine is the one you have access to. It’s vital to learn these simple remedies, because there will be a time in your life when you need them.
For additional cooling relief of inflamed areas, substitute aloe in place of water to reduce redness and irritation. This remedy is safe for adults and children.
- Fresh plantain leaves
- Water, aloe, or the gel exudate expressed from the bottom of a dock leaf stem
Make a thick paste with finely chopped or chewed plantain and a small amount of water. You’ll want a texture similar to pesto. Smear on affected areas. If it dries and irritation persists, reapply as necessary. Use immediately, and don’t store.