I have a soft spot for this popular and often misunderstood weedy plant and it hurts my heart to see it listed on the bags of herbicides as one of the targeted weeds for eradication. Today’s Spotlight on Herbs is Plantago ssp, known as plantain.
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If you have ever taken a stroll through a park, national forest, or stepped right outside your door, you have seen this wild and weedy plant. It stands cheerfully, waving its modest little seed heads, beckoning you to come close and embrace its precious gift.
Plantain is one of the first wild and weedy plants I learned to identify and use as an herbalist. Because of its rich history and many medicinal uses, I have become very fond of it and look for it everywhere I go, especially if I am in the woods where there is a risk for bug bites, scratches, and scrapes. In a pinch, I can make a poultice to calm the meanest of honeybee stings here on the farmstead.
Plantain can be used to soothe a rash, calm a sunburn, and offer support for bee stings and insect bites. It soothes and supports mucus membranes of the respiratory, digestive, and urinary tract as well. Come along on an adventure of embracing plantain and receiving its gifts of support.
What Is Plantain?
Plantain is a perennial weedy plant in the plantaginaceae family. There are more than 250 species of Plantago growing in all parts of the world that are said to be safe for external and internal use. The two most common species widely used in herbal remedies is Plantago major and Plantago lanceolate. This article will focus on these two species and will be referred to as plantain because they are broadly naturalized across North America.
BOTANICAL NAME: Plantago major, Plantago lanceolata
COMMON NAME: Plantago major– Broad Leaf Plantain, White Man’s Foot, Fleawort, Snakeweed, Waybread
Plantago lanceolata: Ribwort, Plantain, Snake Plant, Ribble Grass, Hen Plant, Lamb’s Tongue
PARTS USED: young leaves, seeds
NATIVE LAND: Europe and Asia.
GROWING HABITAT: wildly naturalized across the globe, grows in lawns, parks, forests, open meadows, along paths, in cracks of sidewalks, IN disturbed soil
Plantago major, broadleaf plantain, has broad leaves that are arranged in a rosette pattern. The leaves are ovate in shape and can be 4-10 inches in length. The leaves have 5-11 ribbed veins that run the length of the leaf. The flower stalks are as long as the leaves, growing upward with tiny, purplish-green flowers at the end. The seeds are sticky and considered hitchhikers, being easily scattered by people and animals.
Plantago lanceolata, Ribwort, has green, long slender leaves that are pointed on the end They are about an inch in width and can grow to be 10-12 inches long. The leaves have 3-5 ribbed veins that run the length of the leaf. From the center of the plant, 3-5 flower stalks reach upward, sometimes reaching 10-12 inches from the base.
At the tip, the seed head looks like a spike with tiny flower petals. Plantago lanceolata grows taller than Plantago major. Interestingly, plantain will flourish and thrive in grassy fields and meadows. However, when growing along roadways or paths, it is often smaller, shorter, and closer to the ground.
PLANT CONSTITUENTS: allantoin, flavonoids, iridoid glucosides, minerals, mucilage, phenolic acids, saponins, and tannins
PRIMARY ACTIONS: alterative, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, antiseptic, astringent, diuretic, demulcent, expectorant, hemostatic, hepatoprotective, nutritive, vulnerary
ENERGETICS: cooling and moistening
TASTE: bitter, mineral-salty,
ORGAN, SYSTEMS SUPPORTED: mucous membranes of the respiratory system, digestive tract, urinary tract and skin
PREPARATIONS: eyewash, fomentation, freshly juiced, infused oil, mouth wash, nutritive food, poultice, salve, tincture, vinegar, water infusion
The History of Plantain
Plantain was well known to some of the greatest ancient Greek and Roman physicians. Dating back as early as 40 B.C-90 B.C. Pedanius Dioscorides, a doctor with the Roman Army, referenced the use of Plantain as being effective for soothing, cooling, and softening the skin. Alexander the Great used Plantain for headache relief in 356 B.C.-323 B.C. Plantain was listed as one of the nine sacred herbs by the Anglo Saxons from 450 A.D. to 1066 A.D. The Anglo Saxons used plantain to expelling internal parasites, support kidney disorders and relieve discomfort from hemorrhoids.
When early Christians would see plantain growing on well-traveled paths, they saw it as a symbol of Christ’s followers because it grows everywhere. The British Museum has a collection of 114 recipes handwritten by King Henry VIII (1491-1547). It is also mentioned in several plays written by William Shakespeare, including “Romeo and Juliet.” In 1652, Nicholas Culpeper listed plantain as a popular and familiar plant in Culpepper’s Herbal, one of the most popular herbals written in English.
This groweth so familiarly in meadows and fields, and by pathways, and is so well known that it needeth no description.-Nicholas Culpeper
The German Commission E. has shown that plantain is effective for healing wounds, soothing inflammation in mucous membranes, and supporting skin conditions.
The Origin of Plantain
Plantain has grown for ages across Europe and Asia as a native plant offering food and medicine to many, especially travelers. Plantain was a treasured plant by the Early Settlers of America and was one of many plants that made the voyage to new lands.
Native Americans gave plantain the common name of English Man’s Foot or Whiteman’s Foot because it seemed to sprout and grow at the heals of the early settlers as they traveled across the new land, naturalizing and growing everywhere.
Plantain has naturalized across North America, Austalia, Europe, and Northern and Central Asia. It can be found growing in yards, local parks, national forests, along the side of the road, and on trails and paths. It is a tenacious weedy plant that can grow in the cracks of sidewalks, hollow spots of trees, and any other place a little soil can accumulate. Plantago major prefers moist soil and partial shade. Plantago lanceolate grows in sunny dry soil. It will grow freely where the land has been trodded and self-seeds to spread throughout an area. Both species are easily started from seed when cultivated in a kitchen or herb garden.
Because plantain has naturalized and grows in abundance, it is easily wild-crafted. It is best to wild-craft from areas that are known to be free of pesticides, animal, and human foot traffic. Do not harvest along the sides of roads. When harvesting in fields, especially in shady areas, be on the lookout for poison oak and or ivy. The plants usually grow near each other.
Plantain is considered a nutritive plant, containing protein, starches, and vitamins. It is edible and harvested in early spring. Fresh tender leaves can be added to salads or lightly sauteed. Older leaves can also be eaten. However, they may be tough and stringy. The seeds are mucilaginous and high in fiber and can be eaten raw or cooked. Another species, Plantago psyllium, is used as a fiber supplement in the popular OTC preparation known as Metamucil. The seeds husks are used.
When using plantain for support during any healing time, the leaves should be harvested in the spring and early summer before the flowers are in full bloom. Although this is the ideal time, plantain can be harvested and used anytime when faced with nasty insect bites, spider bites, bee stings, snake bites, cuts, scrapes, burns, and other conditions the skin.
Uses of Plantain
Plantain is commonly known to be supportive of the skin. Because the energetics of plantain is cooling, it is used when there is a hot condition/heat. Think, burns, cuts, rashes, insect bites and bee stings. These conditions present themselves with heat, redness, burning, itchiness, and inflammation. A fresh plantain poultice can be applied directly to the area for soothing support. One of the most popular ways to make a poultice when plantain is needed is to pop a few leaves in your mouth, chew them up to make a spit poultice and apply to the affected area. Next, take another leaf and use it as a band-aid, wrapping and/or covering the area. You will want to get the poultice on the area as soon as possible. The poultice can be changed every 20-30 minutes until there is relief. This is one reason why my eyes are always scoping out the landscape where ever I am. Having plantain in or near the apiary can be very beneficial!
Speaking of the apiary, plantain is also known to be drawing. It has the ability to pull bee stingers and splinters from the skin. A poultice can be mixed with a little clay and applied on the stinger or splinter. It can be left overnight. A plantain clay can also be made by making a strong infusion (tea) and mixing with clay such as bentonite, forming a thick paste. Apply the paste to the affected area two to three times a day. You could also use this to draw a pimple to a head or draw the poison out of an insect or spider bite.
For topical uses, plantain can be used as a spit poultice, salve, liniment, or infused oil.
For internal uses, plantain has an affinity for the mucosal membranes of the respiratory and digestive systems as well as the urinary tract. Because plantain has both astringent and demulcent actions at the same time, it can be used to tonify as well as soothe, cool, soften, and moisten tissues. It offers soothing support for the respiratory systems when there is a dry hacking cough. Not only does it have the energetics to cool, but the moistening ability soothes a dry cough as well. Plantain can be used to support hot conditions of the digestive system such as leaky gut syndrome, inflammatory bowel diseases, and acid reflux. Plantain can offer support to the liver and gallbladder as well as provide vitamins and minerals. Plantain is a soothing and moistening demulcent for the urinary tract when there is heat, inflammation, dryness, and bleeding.
For internal uses, plantain is best used as a long infusion otherwise known as a tea. One ounce (30 grams) of dried plant material can be steeped in a quart of water that has just been brought to a boil. Pour the water over the loose/dried herbs and let steep. A long infusion can steep for 4 to 8 hours. Long infusions will offer the nutritive benefits of this weedy plant as well as supporting the mucous membranes. Tinctures can also be used.
Cautions and Contraindications
Plantain is generally known to be a safe and effective plant to use although some have had allergic reactions to the seeds. (psyllium husks) which are from Plantago psyllium.
When using plantain for internal support, it is important to understand and stay within the lane of the energetic properties of the plant as well as the constitutional pattern of the person using it and it may be best to consult with your community herbalist for ongoing support. Conditions that call for the support of plantain internally may take weeks or months to respond. Reflection and reassessment with an herbalist can be helpful in reaching the expected results.
As you can see, plantain is much more than the weedy plant that grows in the cracks of your sidewalk, along the edges of your garden or in the middle of the path to the barn. This hardy and weedy plant has so much support to offer for hot and dry conditions. It’s cooling and moistening energetics can be super supportive. It is cheerful on the hottest of days, waving and gracefully swaying in the breeze. It is easy to identify, can be found almost ANYWHERE and one of the safest weedy plants to use. It is loved by kids and adults alike. It s a perfect plant to have in your home apothecary.
This website is for educational purposes only. This includes any posts, videos, and/or newsletters. I strongly encourage you to become your own researcher before using herbs and/or essential oils for wellness. The information shared is collected through research to empower you and encourage you to learn through your own research. Information shared is not to be substituted for medical advice. Please consult your health care provider as needed. Statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to be taken as medical advice to diagnose, treat, cure and/or prevent illness or disease.