I got a phone call this morning from a woman who had been bitten by an insect and was swelling up. Fortunately I had a picture of broad leaf plantain on my website so was able to tell her how to make a spit poultice to draw it out.
I first learned about plantain poultices when Wisconsin ethnobotanist and Anishinaabeg medicine woman Keewaydinoquay Peschel during her last trip to the east coast. She had used plantain to draw out all kinds of things from insect bites to glass during her years as tribal medicine woman. One year she was lecturing to her class on plantain while a student’s visiting mother sat in on the class. Three years later a package arrived for her from Florida, a thank-you gift from the student’s mother. It seems that the woman and two friends were gardening in Florida and had been bitten by a spider. They didn’t think too much of it, insect bites being fairly common, but on her way home she saw some plantain growing, remembered the lecture and made a spit poultice to draw out the venom. The next morning her friends were dead and she was well.
Plantain, (from the genus Plantago not Musa, the banana plantain ) grows all over the temperate world and most any Plantago species will do, although some have such narrow leaves that you need a lot of them. It was called “White mans’ footsteps” by the Native American tribes who nevertheless quickly discovered its usefulness after the plant was introduced. I have seen plantain growing on the Great Wall of China and in every sidewalk crack in Brooklyn. In any lawn that hasn’t been treated chemically you can find it growing. It has a central rosette and vertical ribs. The only plant that looks similar is a hosta and those are much bigger and less weedy.
To make a spit poultice, you pick several leaves of plantain. Those leaves range from a few inches to the size of a lettuce leaf (but if they are that large make sure you aren’t looking at a hosta leaf.) You put them in your mouth and chew them up until you have a green mush, which may take a little while. The leaves are edible, but overly chewy, and it probably helps that you get a little of the juice in the process (and it minimizes body fluid exchange if you chew your own.) The enzymes in your saliva help release the healing and antiseptic powers from the leaf and give it the proper texture to draw out the venom. Keep it on for several hours and replace it if it dries out. You can hold it on with guaze or a large bandage but you do need to let it breathe so it can draw out as it dries.
I know of several people who are deathly allergic to bee stings who used plantain spit poultices and did not go into anaphalactic shock at all. However I also know people who used it right away and it delayed the shock reaction for a few hours, enough to get to an Epi pen or hospital. It wouldn’t hurt to take some Benadryl, which I think of as an honorary herb if you are deathly allergic and don’t have your Epi pen, but use the plantain immediately.
Plantain is antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, soothing, drawing, and moistening. It contains soothing allantoin, anti-inflammatory baicalein and scutellarin, antibacterial catalpol, phenolic chlorogenic acid, and astringent tannins. The root can be added to the poultice if there is bleeding. I would use it on any insect or animal bite, including snakebite, at least as a temporary treatment. For tick bites, remove the tick first, then poultice, but if you think you have been exposed to Lyme disease, it is time to get antibiotics because the downside is so great. Otherwise the plantain poultice alone may be enough.
You can make spit poultices from other plants like self heal (Prunella vulgaris)
which excels for splinters, violet leaves which are slightly analgesic, or the roots of the coneflowers echinacea or black eyed Susan (rudbeckia). If you see nothing useful, clay or mud will work to physically draw until you can get proper first aid.