Plantain (Plantago major) is one of the most widespread wild herbs in the world. Its seeds were carried across the continents by travelers and sprouted along with dandelions and other plants commonly known as weeds. This plant’s basal rosette and thick-stemmed, ribbed, oval leaves—rich in mucilage, tannins and salicylic acid—hasten the healing of wounds, burns and bruises.
Plantain is a relative of psyllium, in the Plantaginaceae, and its popularity dates back to Alexander the Great. The Greek medic Dioscorides boiled and used the seeds to cure inflammation and the wounds of burn patients. The Chinese at the time of the Han dynasty used this herb as a detoxifying tea for under-the-skin wounds and bruises.
Anglo-Saxons included plantain in their nine sacred herbs. It gained popularity in Latin America, Great Britain and North America as a cosmetic gel for sore skin. Crushed leaves also were used with distilled juice as a soothing, cooling and healing tonic. In Colonial times, the leaf poultice became popular, and physicians used the leaves as an infusion and a decoction to help coagulate blood.
For a wound-healing ointment, boil the whole plant in milk for 5 minutes. You also can use the seed husks, which absorb 25 times their weight in water, to form a gel. After straining out seed hulls, place the warm gel on a clean piece of cloth and cover the burn or bruise three times a day until healed.
This perennial is hardy to Zone 5.
The plant’s flower stalks may grow from 6 to 25 inches. They are tipped by a short array of tiny white flowers with brownish sepals and bracts; inconspicuous yellow flowers bloom in summer. Seedheads turn from green to brown as they mature, and brown seeds yield a high amount of fiber. The plant flowers from April to October and dies back in winter, so extract the oil from the flowerheads early in the season. Plantain sprouts back from its fibrous taproot around mid-spring. The leaves tend to hug the ground and may grow up to about six inches long and four inches wide.
Anita B. Stone is a certified master gardener and horticultural therapist, and partners an herb business in North Carolina.