Plantain is an excellent plant for a first herbal introduction. It has multiple virtues that we can share with beginners and kids. And it’s found almost everywhere people have stirred up the earth, walked and mowed frequently.
Of course as always we want to avoid anywhere that cars drive to avoid chemicals on the plant. But you’ll have no problem finding plantain in other places!
Plantago major or broadleaf plantain is quite common in temperate zones. Plantago lanceolata or narrowleaf or ribwort plantain is usually nearby as well but additionally thrives in coastal and riparian edges.
The parallel veins running along the leaf, from the base of the stem to the top of the leaf edges without intersecting, is one of plantain’s signatures for identification. Here we find plantain so abundantly that our biggest challenge will be to find the fresh green leaves.
We might notice broadleaf with its more widely spreading rosette of leaves. Narrowleaf plantain, conversely, has almost needle-like leaves. Plantain flowerheads are similar to one another. As always enlist an experienced botanist or herbalist to help you identify it in person for the first time. And the second!
A Digestive Aid
Plantago ovata is the desert Plantain known around the world as psyllium. Psyllium seed husk is sold in many forms as a digestive tonic, helping to add fiber to our diets. We need this fiber to cleanse intestinal linings by gently scrubbing like a toothbrush in your guts.
There’s a slimy quality imparted by a cold water soak of the seeds in your yard that can be incorporated to help loosen stuck pockets in the guts while also soothing them. The seed husk part of the plant used for these over-the-counter supplements can be found in our temperate plants, but the processing it would take to get enough seed husk from these tiny seed heads is daunting for most of us.
You can notice the seed husks this time of year, when you find those slender-stemmed seed heads standing taller than the basal rosette leaves.
In the Leaves
The leaves are what I celebrate most in plantain. I eat them in salads and praise their fresh juices. I dry them to make tea in winter and to infuse them into medicated ointments like salve and bathing washes. I freeze some strained tea for winter enjoyment as well.
Like jewelweed, plantain can be poulticed up in the field. But unlike jewelweed, plantain is best poulticed by chewing the leaves in your mouth.
I’ve introduced many people, including children, to herbal medicine for the first time this way. When a person gets a bee or wasp sting while playing in a soccer field or other open, frequently mowed spaces, we are able to quickly remove venom using nearby plantain that readily offers itself up for picking.
To work with the poultice, I will break off a fresh green leaf and chew it up so that it’s a wad in my mouth with saliva. I spit out the green saliva with plant bits and place the whole mess directly on the sting.
Feel the heat of the sting cooling as plantain’s drawing action pulls things out. Once the relief wears off and the pain or heat comes back, repeat with a fresh leaf at the ready to chew while gently wiping the first poultice away. Then add more plantain-spit-poultice immediately. Repeat and repeat over the next half hour, even after the heat of the sting has gone, to get the rest of that venom out and keep that sting from swelling and itching all day.
Note that this will definitely only work for those with mild swelling reactions, not dangerous allergic reactions.
A Healing Tea
Plantain’s been known to help my family pull foreign objects like splinters and even glass, as well as the venom of stinging insects, excess fluid from a blister or otherwise infected punctures. But of course don’t spit-poultice an open or serious wound!
A tea of boiled water, strained and added to herbs prepared by your local herbalist, will better serve than a poultice there.
During a course on gut health, jim mcdonald pointed out the virtues of chewing raw plantain leaf throughout the day to let the cooling juices run into the mouth and down the throat and esophageal linings. This can reduce irritation that comes from conditions such as acid reflux. I’m experimenting with this method for mouth complaints.
Drop me an email with me your plantain lovestories!