“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Welcome to the fourth post in the Wonderfully Wild series! If you missed the first three plants you can find them here.
The Wonderfully Wild series is designed to share with you some thoughts on using wild, foraged plants in your family's meals and medicines. Plants that offer us so much more than their cultivated counterparts!
A series written in real-time as the season unfolds. Nothing overwhelming or too technical, but just some simple herbs and roots and fruits you can enjoy to get your feet wet (sometimes literally!) with wild edibles and medicinals.
Today we're exploring the easy to identify, easy to love plant that most of you have in your backyard: plantain.
Broadleaf plantain (plantago major)
Plantain has had a place in my heart (and my medicine bag) since childhood.
Brought to North America by hitchhiking seeds that arrived with the first Europeans, plantain quickly took root across much of the continent. (It's nickname "white man's footprint" tells it's story well.)
Plantain is nearly everywhere! A tenacious survivor, you've surely pulled it from the cracks in your sidewalk and stepped on it as you walked down a rocky trail. Whole patches of my lawn are nothing but plantain this year. But that's just fine by me.
What is plantain good for? So many things! Here are a few of my favorites:
- Drawing: a great choice to help draw out splinters and stingers as well as infections
- Soothing: for burned, itching, or otherwise damaged skin
- Anti-microbial: great for treating or preventing infections
- Healing: stimulates cell growth which speeds healing
- Internal soother: a good gut-soother for treating diarrhea
- Nutrition: plantain is high in calcium, magnesium, sodium, phosphorous, zinc, and copper. Also rich with vitamins A, C and K
- Expectorant: helpful for treating coughs
To identify plantain in the field we'll look for it's key distinguishing characteristics. Use the photographs above as a guide.
Please note: I'm focusing on broadleaf plantain, but another species, Plantago lanceolata, or narrow leaf plantain is common as well and can be used interchangeably with broadleaf.
Leaves: Plantain leaves are large, rather thick, and almond shaped.
Leaf texture: The upper side of the leave is smooth with visible veins while the underside shows thick raised lighter-colored veins. If you tear a leaf in half, these thick veins often protrude from one side of the leaf like the strings from a stalk of celery. (I used to call plantain by it's charming nickname "frog's fiddle" because if you snap the leaf just so the strings stay connected to both halves you can imagine it becoming a perfect instrument for a cheerful frog.)
Stem: The thick veins in the plantain leaf continue down the stem which turns red to pinkish toward the base. A cross-section is u shaped, again reminding me of celery.
Growth: Plantain loves disturbed habitats like parks, lawns, trails, and roadways. Leaves emerge from a shape known as basal rosette. In English "basal rosette" means basal (from the base - or ground) rosette (in a rose-shape where each leaf is like a rose petal).
Flower stalk: A rough seed-covered spike emerges from the center of the rosette in summer.
Habitat: Plantain prefers poor, dry soil but can live in a variety of conditions.
Plantain can be used topically or taken internally. Here are a few of our favorite ways to use this Swiss army knife of a plant.
Spit poultice: Learn how to make this if only to have a remedy at the ready with "spit" in the name. (Details below.)
Salve: Plantain salve is wonderful for skin irritations and itchy rashes
Wash: A plantain wash is helpful for infections or irritated skin
Out-and-About Spit Poultice
This is not a recipe per se, but I couldn't help but list it as one. (Because really. Spit. Poultice. Recipe. I think I may have lost half of my followers right there.)
A spit poultice is your first line of defense when you are out and about without other remedies and disaster strikes. Bee stings, scraped knees, slivers, even stinging nettle can all be soothed by a spit poultice. (You can also make one with chickweed if you can't find plantain.)
Here is what you need:
- one plantain leaf
- your mouth or the mouth of an injured friend
To make a plantain spit poultice, simply find some plantain leaves (avoid dirty leaves or those growing near sprayed areas or roadside), pop a leaf into your mouth and chew it into a vibrant green paste.
(Because plantain is mucilageous it can be quite gooey.)
Apply the slimy mix to effected area and leave it in place to help draw out stingers, infections, and to reduce pain and soothe sore skin.
We love the spit poultice around here. I used one just yesterday on a sliver I couldn't get out while I was doing morning chores. Trust me. They work!
If possible, have the person who needs the poultice do the chewing. The benefit is that they will swallow some of the plantain juices which can speed healing though internal and external treatment.
Homemade Plantain Salve
A spit poultice is great, but this method will feel more, well... sanitary to some plant medicine newcomers.
Making a plantain salve at home is a wonderful way to get started with homemade plant medicine!
You can add additional herbs as well, depending on what is available in your yard or neighborhood. (Chickweed, burdock root, and violet leaf are all good choices.)
- 1/2 C fresh plantain
- 2/3 cups olive or sunflower oil (optional: substitute hempseed or jojoba oil for all or part of the olive oil, or a small amount of castor oil for up to 1/4 of the oil)
- 1 heaping tsp grated beeswax
Being sure there is no moisture on the plantain leaves, chop them finely and place in a clean, dry mason jar.
Heat your oil until it is warm to the touch (but not hot) and pour over the chopped plantain leaf.
Keep the jar warm on a heating pad, in a cooler half-filled with warm water, or in a slow-cooker set to warm. Allow to steep for 24 hours. (Alternatively you can also steep at room temperature for 2 to 4 weeks.)
Strain through a cheesecloth or fine mesh strainer. Press on the leaves to extract every bit of oil you can, then discard.
Gently warm your strained oil. Melt beeswax in a double boiler. When it is liquid, add to warmed plantain infusion.
Pour into small jars and allow to cool.
Makes a short 1/2 pint.
Use on cuts, scrapes, bee stings, splinters, and rashes.
Plantain Wound Wash
Pick as many plantain leaves as you desire. Rinse well, the place in a pot that has a tight-fitting lid. Pour freshly boiled water over leaves to cover, then top your pot with a lid. Allow to steep until cooled, then strain out leaves and reserve liquid.
To use, apply to a clean soft cloth, then apply to wounds, bee stings, or poison ivy.
And one final note on plant medicine in general - trust your intuition.
Sage (12) recently had an ear infection. "I feel like plantain would be good for my ear ache," he told me.
Because of what I know about plantain I thought it was a great idea. So he went outside and found a plantain leaf, steamed it, then placed it in the outer ear, held in place beneath a hat. Before bedtime his ear pain was gone.
This is after two days of my attempts at treating it with other more classic herbal remedies for ear pain (garlic and mullen flower infusion).
Trust your intuition and research the plants you are drawn to! You might be surprised what benefits they bring.
P.S. None of this has anything to do with bananas.