Plantain: The Little Big Weed
It’s hard to believe that the little green “nuisance” weed many pay to destroy, is one of the most beneficial plants around. Plantain (Plantago spp.), not to be confused with the banana type plant, has a low-profile, is medicinal, nutritional and quite delicious. The cool rubbery leaves with prominent veins on the underside are easy to identify as well.
Plantain is called the green band-aid for good reason. It is one of the primary plants home herbalists use for bites, stings, cuts, and scrapes. It is known to be strong enough to work on some of the worst bites, but mild enough to use on children and pets. Along with yarrow, it was used during the Trojan War, and English children still refer to it as “soldier’s herb”. It has slight drawing powers, so it can be used for splinters.
Most people have an abundance of plantain in their yards, as the plant loves well trodden soil and being around humans. It’s so common where people walk, that the Native Americans called it “white man’s foot (or footprint).” Don’t harvest from an area that is known to be contaminated with pesticides or motor oil from a dripping car, etc.
Making a spit poultice of plantain is one of the first herbal remedies most home herbalists learn. Pick a clean leaf, chew with your front teeth (digging leaf out of your back teeth isn’t pleasant), and when it is a nice mash, place it on the wound.
If you are able, it is best to do your own spit poultice. Your saliva contains antimicrobial peptides, called histatins, and epidermal growth factors to help repair and regenerate tissues. After an injury and even before a fight, your saliva is flooded with these growth factors. You will also be taking in some of the plant’s saliva-liquefied healing compounds internally through the mouth before applying the mass to the wound from the act of chewing to prepare the poultice. How perfect nature is!
Do not use a spit poultice on deep, open wounds to avoid the possibility of introducing anaerobic oral bacteria into the bloodstream.
Plantain has a wonderfully unique flavor, not like any other greens. To the dismay of many foodies, I’m going to say nutty, but not because I can’t think of another descriptor. Some say you can only eat fresh plantain leaves in the Spring or after blanching and discarding the water to reduce bitterness. However, the newer, tender, lighter-green, wrinklier, and folded in half “heart leaves” all taste great to me year round.
If you have a nice patch of plantain in previously disturbed, well-drained soil and do not mow them, they can get quite large. Some of the books say plantain doesn’t like full shade; however, the largest plantain ever grown on my farm was fully in the shade and coming out of rocky soil downhill of a rain tank.
The larger leaves on this herb were about 10 inches long and about 6–7 inches wide. The “heart leaves” from my larger plants can be 3 inches long and 2 inches wide when unfolded. These “heart leaves” are chopped and used like kale in stir-fry, enchiladas, or any other recipe calling for cooked kale.
Traditionally the root, leaf, flower, and seed have been used medicinally. In Chinese medicine, it is associated with the bladder, kidneys, liver, and lungs as it promotes urination and clears damp heat. Throughout the world the plant has been traditionally used for the lungs, fevers, gout, and dozens of other issues.
Because it has also been used to assist in chelating heavy metals from the body, it can inhibit the absorption of some medications, such as lithium, by binding to it and excreting it from the body. Since plantain is a diuretic, use caution if already on diuretic medications. Diabetics should be aware it can affect their uptake of carbohydrates.
Not only can plantain help nourish and heal the body, it continually grows along beaten-down paths to bring life to disturbed soil. It can tolerate being walked on and keeps the soil protected on foot trails. It is even used in oil and copper contaminated remediation projects. I use it as one of the plants in a “fertili-tea” fertilizer for the garden.
Plantain is loaded with vitamins and minerals and is considered one of the most nutritious plants. It’s fantastic cooked as greens, but also dried for teas and fresh or dried for soups. An infusion can be made by bringing a quart of water up to boil, turn heat off and allow it to cool for a few seconds. Then throw in a handful or two of dried plantain leaves, cover and steep for 4 hours or overnight. Strain and enjoy the liquid nutrition. Feel free to start sneak tasting after 15 minutes and as often as you like if you are concerned with the perfect taste.
As if all that weren’t enough, the flower and seed provide food for birds and nectar, as well as pollen for bees and other insects. Some use the seed as a fiber supplement or stool bulking agent, especially the P. psyllium. When wet, the seed husks expand, become mucilaginous and can be good for constipation or irritable bowel syndrome. Make sure to drink a lot of water if using it this way. To use the seed, harvest when ripe and brown. Run your fingers up the stalk, cupping your palm to catch the seed in your hand.
Plantain infused in oil is a wonderful way to treat minor skin issues and diaper rash or cradle cap. Never use any oils on a fresh poison ivy or any other contact dermatitis rash, but infused plantain oil is nice for any contact dermatitis that is in the healing and not in the eruption phase. Dried summer peach leaves brewed into a strong tea and applied topically is one of the best remedies for fresh, erupting contact dermatitis.
To make a plantain infusion, only pick a few of the larger leaves from each plant. To prevent mold in infused oil, allow the leaves to wilt for several hours or overnight. I use pizza pans with holes placed on mason jars for air flow. Chop and loosely 3/4 fill a quart jar with the plant material; fill to the top with your favorite oil. Some use olive oil, but consider sunflower seed and/or castor oil if it’s to be used on the face.
The next day, open the jar and top it back off with oil as some will have soaked into the plant material. Herbalists say you are replacing the “fairy’s share”. Oil tends to weep out of the jar it is stored in, so store accordingly (on wood that needs polishing, a plate or newspaper). Shake daily or as often as possible. Label on top of the lid, cover the label with a wide piece of clear box tape and date for straining in 6 weeks. There are many methods to making infused oil; some use heat, the sun and less time. This is just the method I follow.
Don’t shake the jar the day it is to be strained, and keep an eye out for any water that may have separated from the oil. While it’s being stored, watch for a bulging lid. You can also cover the jar with a cloth and rubber band for the first few days prior to storage to reduce the risk of moisture in the oil. But if wilted properly prior to soaking, there should be no water. Keep out of the sun and in a cooler place like a pantry. May you enjoy the bounty of your yard.
Make a salve of the oil by combining it with flaked or shredded wax. For a basic ratio, multiply the amount of oil weighed in grams (or ounces) by 9 percent (x .09) to determine the amount of wax to add. Place the oil and wax in a glass, ceramic or metal bowl; then place that bowl in a pot with enough water to rise less than halfway way up the side of the bowl to use the double boiler method. Heat on low, stirring occasionally with a metal tool until the wax melts. You can even put a squirt of liquid Vitamin E into the mix when the heat is turned off. To see if the salve is stiff enough for you, put a little in a spoon and place in the freezer on a cloth for a few minutes to test. If you want it stiffer, add more wax; for thinner add more oil. Pour into tins, jelly jars, or any other container you wish.
For that wax recipe, see: Make Plantain Wax Flakes for Homemade Salves.
Jamie Jackson, Butterfly Medicine Woman, is a staff member of Heirloom Gardener. She is also the owner of MissouriHerbs.com, an organic permaculture-based farm focused on growing medicinal plants that are then crafted using traditional methods into herbal products.
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