Plantain: A Weedy Life-Saver

Broadleaf Plantain

Several years ago I attended an herbal conference, the Green Nation’s Gathering where the Wisconsin ethnobotanist Keewaydinoquay Peschel spoke about her years as a medicine woman.  Specifically she spoke about  how she used plantain to poultice bee stings in those who might be subject to anaphylactic shock, glass stuck in the neck, bug bites, even skin conditions.

One story she told stands out among all others.  She had been lecturing about plantain to her ethnobotany class, and the mother of one of her students sat in on the class. Three years later she received a box from Florida. “I don’t know anyone in Florida she said.” The box was a present from the mother of the student. She had been gardening with her friends and all three had been bitten by a spider. They soon went their separate ways and she noticed plantain growing along the walk. Remembering the lecture, she picked a few leaves and made a spit poultice which she placed over the bite. The next morning her friends were dead and, thanks to plantain, she was not.

The idea that this plant which grows in every sidewalk crack can save a life is something that deeply impresses children I have taught and changes their relationship to plants in general. With its vibrant green leaves, vertical ribs and basal rosette, the plant is easy to identify. It ranges in size from an inch or two long to the size of a medium hosta. (In fact I have a border of plantains in the garden bordering my hostas- the poor man’s hosta!)

Plantain is cool, moist and has a mineral salt taste. It is a yin tonic that heals mucosal tissue. It especially is good for inflammation and ulceration the GI and genitourinary tract. It contains antibacterial baicalein and scutellarin, common to the anti-infective Chinese scutellaria plant. It also contains allantoin which we also find in comfrey root. It is high in flavanoids, tannins, and antioxidants. Plantain leaf is demulcent, emollient, mildly diuretic, styptic and vulnerary.

The seeds have different properties. In western medicine, the seeds of the related psyllium are taken as laxatives. In Chinese medicine, the seeds are made into a diuretic tea which may cure diarrhea. And while the Chinese plantain is slightly more astringent, the main difference is that the bulking properties of the seeds are filtered out when decocted. The seeds contain EFAs and zinc and are used for low sperm count, yang deficiency and impotence.

The leaves can be used to make salves for aches, pains and abrasions. I steep plantain leaves in olive oil for one client who has an inflamed GI tract and it is one of the only things she can tolerate internally. For others the plantain oil soothes the skin.

Plantain with St. John’s wort can be made into a salve for shingles or herpes, fissures, hemorrhoids, rashes and eczema. A poultice with plantain, indigo, and echinacea can be used for scorpion, spider or snake bites, changed regularly. And a tincture of the three, perhaps with additional coptis can be used for MRSA.

Although no plant is as common as plantain, it has the potential to save lives. Its virtue allows us to treasure the commonplace.

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11 thoughts on “Plantain: A Weedy Life-Saver”

  1. Hi Karen

    I was at the talk that day and clearly remember Keewaydinoquay telling that story. In fact, I share that story often when I am teaching. I made a new batch of beautiful green Plantain tincture just the other day.

    Green Blessings

    Judy

  2. Hi Karen

    I have missed your posts since you left Henriette’s email list and I’m delighted to catch up with you again! I tell the story about Keewaydinoquay, plantain and the spider bite to people who come on my workshops and there is always a shocked silence when I reach the end. Thankfully we have no poisonous spiders in the UK although a new species which does bite has just moved in in southern counties. I’ve just “revised” part of the 10th century Anglosaxon poem called the Nine Herb Charm, which you may like.

    Mother of herbs they call you, Plantain,
    Crushed beneath our feet as we walk or ride,
    We lead oxon and carts over you
    Laying our women on your broad leaves
    Hearing them cry out as our bulls snorted
    All you withstood then
    So you withstand now
    All poison and vile contagion abroad in the land

    Very best wishes

    Sarah

  3. Interesting article! I’ve really come to love plantain. I know someone suffering from shingles, and I think I’ll try giving her a salve of the plantain and St. John’s Wort to see how that works for her. She’s not currently on any herbal remedies, but I’m sure she’d be open to trying a salve from a friend!

  4. i love plantain! as someone who is greatly affected by bee stings (and raises bees) i always carry plantain tincture with me. when i’m stung (not if, it’s a matter of life around here walking barefoot and having 4 hives flying about), i immediately drop to the ground, find and chew plantain, apply it to the sting site and then ingest the tincture as well to help minimize the reaction. plantain is a life saver for me.

    i love a salve of plantain and chickweed for treating bug bites, cuts, eczema and psoriasis.

  5. Well, I played THIS one out just today! Got stung on a garden job, quickly chewed a plantain leaf and slapped it on…total NON-event.

    Recently I’ve come upon the notion that Plantain tincture can be a very deep, gentle (hate to even use the word) “DeToxer”, especially after a long illness. I like the way it feels and works. Sort of First Aid and Last Aid all in one! LadyB

  6. I love the poem Sarah. A beautiful description of our plantain. What are the other herbs?

    Diane, you might try adding melissa to the mix for shingles. I use it internally as an overnight infusion, although the Germans have a 45:1 extract they use topically. My last shingles patient said she liked the tea better than the tincture but kept the latter around for portability.

    Barbara, I like that “First Aid and Last Aid.” Great sentiment!

  7. HELLO
    I HAD TO MAKE A COMMENT BECAUSE ON MY KITCHEN CABINET DRYING ARE BOTH TYPES OF PLANTAIN DRYING. I HAVE BEEN AN HERBALIST FOR YEARS NOW & LOVE TO LEARN ABOUT ALL THE PLANT AT MY DOORSTEP.
    I OFFER A GOOD VARIETY OF ESSENTIAL OILS , FRAGRANCE OILS CARRIER OILS , DYES ,CONTAINERS , LIP BALM CONTAINERS ,ETC. I HOPE YOU VISIT BY BLOG ALSO SHARE IT WITH YOUR HERB FRIENDS & I WOULD APPRECIATE A COMMENT . I ENJOYED YOUR BLOG VERY MUCH . WISHED YOU WERE ABLE TO SEE THIS ONE PLANT IN MY YARD . I JUST KNOW THAT PLANT IS AN HERB.

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