Parts Used---Root, leaves, flower-spikes.
Growth & Habitat --- A perennial "weed"
that can be found almost anywhere in North America and much of Europe. You
probably have some in your backyard! Plantain is thought to be indigenous
to Eurasia. It will grow in sun to shade, and in almost any soil - plantain
is very adaptable. Plantain spreads by seeds.
Plantain is a low-growing, green plant with oval, ribbed short-stemmed leaves. The leaves form basal rosettes which tend to hug the ground. The leaves may grow up to about 6" long and 4" wide, but tend to vary greatly in size depending on their soil and light conditions. Plantain sends up a leafless flower stock in summer/fall - the stalks can be up to ten inches tall.
There are over 200 species in the plantain family, and they are found worldwide. Many have herbal uses. Plantago major is the most common one in North America, but Plantago lanceolata can also be found. Both have the same medicinal uses, and are very similar in appearance. Plantago major has wide rounded leaves, with a flowering spike covered with small nubbly seeds; Plantago lanceolata has longer, slender leaves, and a mostly bare flowering stem, with a conelike cluster of flowers on the top.
(Please note that plantain - the starchy, banana-like fruit, is completely different and not related to the plantain "weed" we are talking about!)
Plantain is edible - harvest the young, tender leaves for use in a salad, or steamed and used as a spinach substitute. The leaves do get tough quickly, so make sure to harvest only the youngest leaves. The immature flower stalks may be eaten raw or cooked. If you're really adventuresome, you can harvest the seeds. They are said to have a nutty flavor and may be parched and added to a variety of foods or ground into flour. The leaves, seeds and roots can all be made into an herbal tea.
Plantain was brought to the US and also to New Zealand by European settlers who valued it for it's culinary and medicinal properties. The settlers seemed to leave the plant wherever they went, thus earning it the name "White Man's Foot' or "Englishman's Foot" by the natives of both countries.
Plantain has been used medicinally by Europeans for centuries. Herbals dating from the 1500's and 1600's are full of recipes and uses for plantain. It was considered to be almost a panacea - a cure-all, and a quick search shows that is has historically been recommended as a treatment for just about everything, up to and including dog bites, ulcers, ringworm, jaundice, epilepsy, liver obstructions, and hemorrhoids! Plantain was so commonly known it is even found referenced in works by both Chaucer and Shakespeare.
Plantain is usually plentiful and can be easily harvested anytime from early spring until frost. Please do be careful where you harvest it - roadsides are notoriously dirty and dusty, and ditches are often sprayed with herbicides. Leave a spot in your backyard where you allow it to grow, and you can harvest your own all growing season! If your neighbors think you are crazy, let them know that plantain is a food source for some friendly wildlife such as butterfly caterpillars, and that the seeds are a food source for many varieties of birds.
Plantain is very high in beta carotene (A) and calcium. It also provides ascorbic acid (C), and vitamin K. Among the more notable chemicals found in plantain are allantion, apigenin, aucubin, baicalein, linoleic acid, oleanolic acid, sorbitol, and tannin. Together these constituents are thought to give plantain mild anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antihemorrhagic, and expectorant actions. Acubin has been reported in the Journal Of Toxicology as a powerful anti-toxin. Allantoin has been proved to promote wound healing, speed up cell regeneration, and have skin-softening effects.
Modern medical research is proving to uphold many of the historical uses of plantain - especially as a wound healer, and as a treament for lung conditions such as bronchitis or asthma. Medicinally, plantain is astringent, demulcent, emollient, cooling, vulnerary, expectorant, antimicrobial, antiviral, antitoxin, and diuretic. Plantain is approved by the German Commission E (a sort of German "FDA" that studies and regulates herbs and herbal uses) for internal use to ease coughs and mucous membrane irritation associated with upper respiratory tract infections as well as topical use for skin inflammations. Two Bulgarian clinical trials have suggested that plantain may be effective in the treatment of chronic bronchitis.
How much is usually taken? The German Commission E officially recommends using 1/4-1/2 teaspoon (1-3 grams) of the leaf daily in the form of tea made by steeping the herb in 1 cup (250 ml) of hot water for 10-15 minutes (making three cups (750 ml ) per day). The fresh leaves can be applied directly three or four times per day to minor injuries, dermatitis, and insect stings. Syrups or tinctures, approximately 1/2 teaspoon (2-3 ml) three times per day, can also be used, particularly to treat a cough. Finally, 1/2-1 1/4 teaspoons (2-6 grams) of the fresh plant can be juiced and taken in three evenly divided oral administrations throughout the day. Of course as with all herbal medicines, you are your own best doctor - listen to your body and pay attention to it's interaction with the herb, and you will undoubtedly figure out your own best uses and dosages.
Plantain is not associated with any common side effects and is thought to be safe for children Plantain is classed as "able to be safely consumed when used appropriately" by the American Herbal Retailers Association. Some preliminary research does show, however, that some allergy sufferers may have a reaction to plantain pollen, so if you feel this may be a problem for you, you may want to only use the plantain leaves for your herbal preparations.
One of plantain's most common uses is as a poultice for stings, bites, scrapes and rashes. The simplest way to harness plantain's healing powers is to crush a few fresh leaves, and apply to the affected area. Replace fresh leaves as necessary. The fresh plantain "juice" takes the pain away and seems to work wonders at staunching blood flow and closing wound edges. It's also wonderfully refreshing and soothing to sunburn.
Plantain infusion (tea) can also be used as a soothing wash for sunburn, windburn, rashes, or wounds. To make a plantain infusion, simply add a small handful of fresh plantain leaves to a cup or two of water, and bring to a gentle boil. Turn off heat, and let steep, then strain out the leaves. The infusion is best when fresh, although it can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days.
Our favorite way to use plantain is in a herbally infused oil. Gently fill a container with fresh plantain leaves that have been lightly bruised or crushed. (Dried plantain can be used - if you are using dried plant material, you only need to fill the jar one-half full). Cover the leaves with oil - any vegetable oil will do, cover the container, and let sit in the sun for a couple of weeks. The will turn a beautiful dark green color. Strain out the leaves and you have a lovely herbal oil to use. It's wonderful to soften, soothe and heal any manner of skin conditions. We love to make a herbal salve from this oil - simply add 1-2 oz. melted beeswax to warmed infused oil. Stir over low heat until the beeswax and oil are uniformly combined, and then pour into clean jars or tubs.
Susun Weed recommends using plantain oil on babies and small children instead of lotions or vaseline. Natural vegetable oil that has been infused with the gentle, healing essence of plantain is far healthier to put on a baby's delicate skin than chemical-laden lotions or petroleum by-products. She also recommends using whole, clean, gently crushed fresh plantain leaves directly on a baby's diaper rash as an overnight polutice. This will help heal common diaper rash, as well as a yeast-infection diaper rash. Of course a plantain oil or salve can also be an excellent cure for diaper rash or cradle cap.
We use plantain-infused oil in just about all of our oil-based products, such as salves, lip balms, body oils, etc. We wildcraft chemical-free plantain from our property and the land next to ours. It dries well; the dried herb makes and excellent infusion and can be used to make an herbally infused oil that is almost as potent as the oil made from fresh leaves.
Here's an excellent picture of a plantain, with it's seed spikes. (just ignore the weed behind it).
The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook by James A. Duke, Ph.D
Weeds - Friend or Foe? By Sally Roth
Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year by Susun Weed