Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Let Me Introduce You To My Friend Plantain

Plantain (Plantago major) growing robustly on my garden path

Today I have the perfect moment to write about a common weed that is an uncommonly great herbal remedy: plantain.

Earlier this morning I was moving a compost pile from the spot where our chicken coop is going to go when all of a sudden a swarm of honey bees flew at me. Fortunately, I was stung only two or three times, and fortunately I'm not allergic, but the whole incident had me almost hyperventilating and the bee stings hurt like he**!

And what remedy came to my rescue? Why, the "lowly" plantain of course! Plantain is THE remedy for bee stings, bug and snake bites. Oh, there are others but plantain is so easy and so readily available everywhere. Its nickname is "white man's walk" because it grows where people walk, or on old trails (horse, deer, or man's). And also because the white man brought plantain over from Europe, along with dandelions and many other of our noxious weeds/invaluable herbal remedies and food. If plantain is growing in your yard as it is ours, it's a sign of compacted earth and it's often advised to aerate your lawn to get rid of it. You might find plantain growing along your sidewalk, as it is along mine in the photo below (next to thyme on the patio).
My favorite way to use plantain in the summer during prime bee sting season is to just take a leaf and make a lot of bite marks in it to get the juices going. Then hold the leaf on the sting like a band-aid and it will provide relief in a short time. I have impressed so many bee-stung kids with my "green medicine" this way! I also have plantain salve which works great if you put a band-aid or compress on top of it--you need something be it leaf, band-aid or piece of cloth, to which the stinger can attach itself. Today in my moment of panic I first grabbed some leaves and started biting, then ran into the house for salve, then had George get some band-aids, then I grabbed some compresses. The combination of it all did manage to calm me down and provide relief. I think in the end the whole leaves with bite marks in them and held on by a compress provided the best relief, but plantain salve is still a great ally for times when you can't find plantain growing.

Other uses for plantain leaves or salve: bites of all kinds, puncture wounds, slivers, dirty cuts and scrapes, or any abrasions. Plantain will draw out pus, dirt, shards of glass, slivers, etc. Then it will promote healing cell growth (class notes, Herbalist Lise Wolff lecture). You can also pack plantain leaves into your mouth for a toothache and it may draw out infectious materials and relieve the pain. It relieves canker sores as well. Plantain leaves or salve could be of great use to you during a dental emergency such as a root canal situation, but obviously see your dentist too!

I gave a client both plantain and white oak bark (quercus alba) tinctures for a series of dental problems she had. She still needed lots of oral surgery, but its possible the herbal remedies helped speed the healing. She didn't need as much antibiotics as usual.

Plantain tincture is an excellent general sore throat remedy. If you eat plantain when it's a little bit too big, you get some of its threads stuck in your throat so this can remind you that plantain tincture can heal sore throats when it feels like there's something stuck in there. (This is based on one herbal medicine/homeopathic principle--that herbs cause what they cure and cure what they cause--called the Law of Similars). For sore throats of any kind, take one drop under the tongue twice a day.

According to my teacher Lise Wolff, RH (AHG), Plantain is anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, analgesic and astringent. The tincture may also work for gastritis and cystitis where it cools inflammation. It may be indicated in cases where the kidneys and liver have been stressed by use of pharmaceutical drugs or heavy metal toxicity. I have less experience with these uses but if given the chance I would try plantain in these types of cases since its such a readily available local herb.

One last "signature" for Plantain is of the sole of the foot. Plantain/Plantago:Plantar have the same latin root word and plantar is the word for foot. Plantain can be used for relief of plantar fascitis and in this case you can use it in any form, tincture, leaf or salve.

One can look for these reminders for the uses of herbal remedies in the latin terms, the nicknames and even sometimes in the way a plant looks. In the case of plantain, the leaves have strings that one can see when you pull the leaf from its stem. Those strings remind me of plantain's ability to draw out toxins and bind up injuries--like a needle and thread.

The seeds of plantain are psyllium seed, the same stuff you can buy for a fiber supplement. Psyllium seeds are not only a good source of fiber for bulk in your diet, but they can pull parasites out of the intestines and pass them through the bowels. All parts of plantain are edible, the leaves and the seed pods. You'll want to eat the plantain leaves very early in the season when they are small and tender. They like all greens are very high in vitamins and minerals.


anna banana said...

Hi Lisa,

I'm so glad I've learned about what this little plant can do! I was wondering to myself recently if it could be useful somehow.

One thing, though, when I put it on one of my seven-year-old son's frequent scrapes, he said it stung. We had mashed it in our mortar and pestle because he was reluctant to chew it up himself. Was it the plantain itself that was causing the stinging feeling?


Jess said...

I am so glad you started posting on this site. I have been checking it regularly anyway even when you didn't just waiting for something to come up. This is all so interesting. Reading this kind of stuff reminds me of my Opa, he used to have a use for everything...nothing went to waist wit him. He had such a connection with nature. Thanks, Lisa ;)

LisaZ said...

I have never felt plantain sting. Mashing it in the mortar and pestle should be fine--some people prefer to chew it up into bits rather than just make bite marks on the leaf.

It could be that your son feels a stinging with the healing--he may be sensitive to the herb working and it's probably nothing to worry about. I'd try rinsing the "owie" under cold water (good to do anyway) and then re-apply plantain with a band-aid on top. Leave the plantain/band-aid on no more than a day. I always check to see how the cut/wound is looking periodically to make sure there's no infection. If the feeling bothers your son, you may need to skip the plantain and use other remedies.


bornfamous said...

Hi Lisa,

Thanks for sharing such important knowledge! Would plantain be helpful with mosquito and other insect bites too? My friend is allergic to mosquito bites and sometimes even gets infections from them.

LisaZ said...

Yes, plantain could definitely help with mosquito and other insect bites.

I also meant to say in my post that if I had had an allergic reaction to the bee stings I would've taken a dropperful of nettles tincture. Nettles are good for many allergic reactions and I've seen and heard of their efficacy many, many times. I use nettles when my kids break out into hives (usually from accidentally coming into contact with bubble bath or other soaps). One dropperful (5-10 drops) of tincture in the mouth and the hives go away in minutes. Your friend might try that.


bornfamous said...

Thanks Lisa,

My friend is extremely allergic to most foods, so she may not be willing to introduce anything new to her body, but I'll let her know.


plantainpatch said...

Hi Lisa,
Great post! I LOVE plantain. I am glad to have found your blog.

Lewru said...

Lisa - great post! I love all the information you provide. It is so useful. In terms of the psyllium, I've heard that digestive psyllium is from flax. Is that a mistake?
Thanks again!

Carla said...

Lisa - I'm so glad I finally came over to look at this site - it's great!! I have lots of things growing in my yard that I'm thinking are probably useful plants if only I knew how to use them!
About plantain - the variety here in n. Idaho is different than what grew back in Wisconsin. The flower stalk is very tall. I think I remember reading that it's called English plantain(?)
Anyway - can it be used in the same manner as the short plantain?
Thanks for all this great information - I'm going to become a regular reader for sure...

LisaZ said...

Flax is a completely different plant. It's another good source of dietary fiber. Some doctors advise to combine flax and psyllium seeds as a supplement that's easier on the digestive system than just psyllium alone.

LisaZ said...


I would try the plant you have and see if it works like I've described for plantain. Use a leaf on a bee sting or bug bite. See if it provides relief. That will give you the hint that would be worth making a tincture or salve.

Before using any plant, though, find a way to verify that it is really what you think it is. If you don't have anyone to show you (which is the best route), look up more than one picture and compare/contrast as much as you can. Peterson's Field Guides are good to have for plant i.d.


bojisti said...

Hi Lisa,

We are Europeans living in the US and we are aware of the amazing qualities of plaintain. We came across your blog while looking for a place online where we can buy some fresh plantain leaves. I know this may sound strange, since plantain grows free and actually unwanted in many backyards but we could not find any in New York City. We wanted to ask you whether you know some place from where we can order fresh plantain leaves. Maybe we can buy a few leaves from your backyard? :)
We would appreciate your answer as my husband needs it for his toe treatment. Thanks for the interesting article.


LisaZ said...

bojisti, I went to your blog but found you're not currently posting. I'll answer here. You've got me totally stumped. I've never heard of plantain leaves in the market. Europeans are so much more advanced at this herb stuff! (Or should I say, more old-fashioned? and still appreciate the old knowledge...)

I bet you could get plantain salve online. Do a google search and see if you can find some. If not, I would be happy to mail you some. But that could take a while and it sounds like you need it now. I would think an herbalist in New York City could get you some. Look for herbalists on the American Herbalists Guild website.

What about going to a park? Central Park? Any old park? There's got to be plantain growing somewhere!

Let me know how you fare...Lisa

Anonymous said...

I recently got stung or bit by either a deer fly or bee. I used plantain right away. It stung for a few minutes, but I did not have a reaction for a couple of days. I normally have a terrible reaction to everything that bites.