Plantain, the Earthly Traveler’s Trusty Companion
If you only learn one herb, make it plantain. It’s very safe, easy to find, and can be used for a wide variety of health issues.
Not at all related to the large, starchy banana of the same name, plantain is a common weed that is native to Europe, but has since spread all over the world.
Plantain has a yen for travel. The botanical name (Plantago) comes from the Latin word for the sole of the foot. Indeed, wherever humans go, plantain follows. Indigenous Americans and New Zealanders both dubbed the weed “white man’s footprint,” because it sprang up wherever Europeans made their settlements.
As a seasoned traveler, plantain prefers a well-worn path and is often found growing in pavement cracks. While grass requires loose, aerated soil, plantain prefers hard, dense ground. It excels at pulling minerals and nutrients from compact soil that most plants could not penetrate.
Plantain has an astringent nature with a strong drawing action, which is why it is often used to suck out splinters, stingers, and even tiny bits of glass from the skin. Plantain is also used for bites from mosquitoes, dogs, snakes, and other venomous creatures. Herbalists like to say that plantain pulls out the poison. The plant contains a chemical called aucubin, which has been shown in studies to have potent anti-toxic and liver protective effects.
Consider plantain with any burning, itchiness, or redness on the skin. It is approved by Germany’s herbal regulatory agency, Commission E, for topical skin inflammations.
Plantain salves are great, but the easiest way to use this herb is a spit poultice.
A poultice is a wet mash of herbs that is applied topically, and a spit poultice is made in the mouth. A few minutes of chewing breaks down plantain’s fibrous leaves so the plant’s medicinal chemicals can absorb into the skin. It doesn’t sound very hygienic, but a plantain spit poultice has been used for centuries for healing (and even disinfecting) minor wounds. It can also remove the pain and sting of other plants, such as nettles or poison ivy.
Keep the poultice on the inflamed area for five to fifteen minutes to reduce redness, pain, and swelling. Reapply four or five times a day if necessary.
Plantain tea is an excellent beverage for a cough. It helps remove phlegm, calm lung irritation, and is approved by Commission E for treating upper respiratory tract infections.
Clinical trials in Bulgaria support the use of plantain for chronic bronchitis. A German study found that plantain’s gentle nature is particularly suited for children’s coughs.
To make the tea, simmer four or five fresh (or a tablespoon of dried) leaves in a cup of water for about 20 minutes. The flavor is very mild, but you can add lemon and honey if you wish.
Other uses for plantain tea include gut inflammation, irritable bowel, urinary tract infection, poisoning, ulcers, toothaches, and diarrhea.
Plantain is very nutritious, and it has not only healed but fed many a traveler. The leaves contain beta carotene, calcium, and vitamins A, B, C, and K. However, they are much more fibrous than lettuce or spinach, so you may only want to mix in a few leaves in your salad. Choose younger, smaller leaves, which have a milder flavor and are considerably less stringy.
Avoid leaves that grow near car exhaust or that may have been exposed to lawn chemicals. Seek plants that are untainted by dog urine or other waste.
Fun Plantain Facts
To the Anglo-Saxons of 5th century Britain, plantain’s native land, this weed was one of nine sacred herbs. They made a bread from ground plantain seeds, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
In medieval Europe, the Roman Catholic Church forbid the use of many medicinal herbs, but not plantain. This plant remained in use because it was considered a symbol of the well-trodden path of those seeking Christ.
Plantain is also used as medicine in China, where it is called qe qian (“before the cart plant”) because it is found growing along well-worn paths.
Chinese herbalists recognized that plantain produces an abundance of seed, so they considered it a remedy for male fertility. The seed is also used in Chinese medicine to address blood in the urine.
Seed from one type of plantain called psyllium is often used as a fiber laxative. It is the main ingredient in Metamucil.
Plantain is mentioned in three Shakespeare plays. The best known mention is in Romeo and Juliet where Romeo suggests that Benvolio use plantain leaf to heal his “broken shin.”
Native Americans recognized the medicinal value of plantain soon after it arrived in the New World. In addition to using it for coughs, wounds, and snake bites, plantain is also a Native American remedy for Bell’s palsy, according to herbalist Matthew Wood.
Homeopathic plantain is used for earaches and toothaches, as well as for depression and anxiety caused by nicotine addiction.
Preliminary research finds that plantain may also help with cancer. A 2003 study in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine found that hot water plantain leaf extracts possessed “significant inhibitory activity” on lymphoma, carcinoma (bladder, bone, cervix, kidney, lung, and stomach) cells, and on herpes infections.
Another 2003 study, published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, found that plantain “flavonoids are able to strongly inhibit the proliferation of human cancer cell lines.”