Plantain is a perennial “weed” original to Eurasia and now naturalized throughout most of the world. It was introduced to North America by early European settlers. The plant prolifically adapted to its new home with such ease that Native Americans referred to it as “white man’s footprint.”
There are more than 200 species of plantain, but the most common in North America is broadleaf plantain (Plantago major), also known as greater plantain. A close second in abundance is lance-leaf plantain (P. lanceolata), also commonly called ribwort. The two are similar in appearance and growth habit, with leaves forming from a basal rosette and tall, leafless flower stalks appearing in summer and fall. Greater plantain has large and wide rounded leaves, while ribwort has slender, lance-like leaves. Both have the same medicinal properties, however, and can be used interchangeably.
Other common names for plantain include rabbit ears, lawn lettuce, dog's ribs, Englishman's foot, buckhorn plantain, cuckoo's bread, ripple grass and hock cockle. In medieval England, plantain was known as wegbrade. The following is a passage from a 10th century English spell once used to empower a salve made from nine herbs to counter poisoning and infection. The spell was known as the Nine Herbs Charm (which had to be repeated nine times to take effect) and the remedy was called Nine Sacred Herbs.
O, Plaintain, Mother of Plants,
Open to the East, powerful inside;
Carts creaked over you,
Women rode over you,
Brides cried over you,
Bulls snorted over you.
All you have withstood and set yourself against,
So you may resist, too, the poison, contagion and evil that spreads across the land.
Uses and Benefits
The leaves, seeds and roots of plantain are used for food and medicine. The leaves are quite nutritious, being a rich source of calcium, iron, potassium, carotenes and vitamins A, B-1, C and K. The young leaves are tossed with other salad greens or cooked like spinach. Mature plantain leaves are used to make teas, syrups, tinctures, infused oils, salves, soaps and lotions. Should you ever find yourself in an emergency situation in the wild, you should know that the fibrous sinew from the leaves can be used to make cording for sutures, bow string or fishing line.
Plantain seeds, although tedious to collect, can be ground and used as a substitute for white flour. Due to a high mucilage content, intact seeds swell when introduced to water. When eaten, the seeds decrease gut and bowel transit time in the same way as its botanical cousin -- psyllium. The dried seeds are also suitable for use as bird seed.
Nature’s Band Aid
One of the most common uses of plantain is as a field poultice, sometimes referred to as a spit poultice. Whenever a bee sting, bug bite or minor cut occurs while you’re outdoors, grab a plantain leaf and chew it slightly to get the leaf juices flowing. Place the chewed leaf over the affected area, securing with a second leaf to help it stay in place (or a piece of cloth). The fresh leaf will reduce pain and inflammation and counter venom inflicted by insect stings and bites.
Plantain has three primary agents that exert healing benefits:
Muscilage – Soothes irritated tissue and reduces inflammation.
Acubin – An iridoid glycoside with potent antimicrobial properties used as a defense chemical by plants.
Allantoin – A phytochemical that stimulates cell regeneration and tissue repair.
Soothes mucous membranes
Stimulates bowel movements
Speeds wound healing
Counters toxins from insect bites and stings
Relieves gout (acubin increases the excretion of uric acid from the kidneys)
To Harvest & Store
Pick leaves in summer and spread them to dry on screens. Store in a sealed mason jar for later use.
Pick leaves and let them wilt for a few hours to reduce their water content. Then infuse with sweet almond, sunflower or olive oil. (Recipe and directions appear below.)
Make an herbal vinegar for culinary and topical use from fresh plantain leaves and apple cider or red wine vinegar.
The mucilage in the leaf soothes the gastrointestinal tract, while the herb’s astringent properties help to reduce inflammation. Although plantain tea is pleasant as-is, it can be slightly bitter. The flavor (and medicinal effect) of the tea is enhanced with the addition of other herbs.
For each cup of boiling water:
1 teaspoon dried plantain leaf
1 teaspoon dried peppermint, meadowsweet or lemon balm
Steep, covered, for 5 minutes.
Plantain Infused Oil
Handful fresh plantain leaves
1 cup olive, sunflower or sweet almond oil
Wilt or dry the plantain leaves. Place in a small mason jar with a lid. Cover completely with oil and cap. Let the jar rest in a sunny spot (outdoors is fine) for 3 to 4 weeks. Strain; reserving the oil in a clean container. Note: Adjust ingredient proportions accordingly for the amount of oil you want to make.
Plantain Skin Salve
4 tablespoons plantain-infused oil
1 tablespoon cocoa butter
1 tablespoon beeswax
Combine all ingredients in the top of a double boiler. Gently heat until the butter and wax are completely melted. Remove from heat and pour into a clean tin or jar. Let cool for several hours or overnight before capping. Store in a cool, dry place.