Forgotten Plants: Plantain

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Forgotten Plants: Plantain | There is probably no need for you to plant plantain, as it grows naturally just about everywhere. If somehow your garden is without it, or you want to add a dedicated patch in your medicinal herb garden, it can be grown from seed and prefers a sunny location. | GNOWFGLINS.com

Forgotten Plants: once prolific in the kitchen gardens of our ancestors, but now so rare that the average person might never have even heard of them. Many of these deserve to find space in our gardens again! This is the fifth post in the series.

I love the story of the dandelion. How it was such an important and useful plant to the Europeans that they brought it with them when they came to the New World. Hundreds of years later they grow prolifically just about everywhere, but few people know what medicinal and nutritional powerhouses they have growing right in their backyards!

I have been familiar with the dandelion story for a long time, but I had no idea that another abundant garden weed shares the same history. That weed is plantain.

Medicinal Herbs

I must admit, although I must pull at least a hundred of these plants out of my garden each year, I did not even know its name until I discovered it in the pages of Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginners Guide. I remember being so excited to discover that this common weed was actually an important and useful herb that I jumped right out of bed (where I do most of my reading) and excitedly ran to tell my husband the good news, book in hand.

My husband, I am afraid, does not quite share my enthusiasm for medicinal herbs (perhaps because so many of these “weeds” do like to waltz out of their beds and over his lawn) but to his credit he agreed that this must be exciting news to me. Perhaps, you also prefer your weeds out of your lawns or gardens, but at least you will know that this is one that can be put to use in the kitchen or medicine cabinet, instead of the compost pile!

Forgotten Plants: Plantain | There is probably no need for you to plant plantain, as it grows naturally just about everywhere. If somehow your garden is without it, or you want to add a dedicated patch in your medicinal herb garden, it can be grown from seed and prefers a sunny location. | GNOWFGLINS.com

History

Plaintain has gone by a number of names throughout history, too many to list them all here. It is interesting that Alexander the Great reportedly used plantain to cure headaches, the Anglo-Saxons listed it as one of the “9 sacred herbs,” and that as early as 1500 it was featured in texts on medicine and healing. In North America, it was a commonly grown and used plant right into the 20th century — until urban life and modern medicine took over — and the plant, and its benefits, were largely forgotten.

Planting Plantain

There is probably no need for you to plant plantain, as it grows naturally just about everywhere. If somehow your garden is without it, or you want to add a dedicated patch in your medicinal herb garden, it can be grown from seed and prefers a sunny location

Forgotten Plants: Plantain | There is probably no need for you to plant plantain, as it grows naturally just about everywhere. If somehow your garden is without it, or you want to add a dedicated patch in your medicinal herb garden, it can be grown from seed and prefers a sunny location. | GNOWFGLINS.com

Harvesting and Benefits

Plantain is as easy to harvest as it is to grow. The leaves are the most commonly used part of the plant, and can be harvested at any time throughout the growing season. Young leaves as best for eating, as older ones tend to be tough and fibrous.

Medicinally this plant is a powerhouse! It’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory nature make it excellent for all kinds of wound-healing. It takes the sting out of bee stings and the itch out of insect bites. It has properties that help control bleeding. It’s a liver stimulant, purifying the blood and is used for various liver problems. German researchers have discovered that the plant can be useful in healing numerous lung conditions, including asthma and bronchitis. Rosemary Gladstar even states that it can be used to draw out slivers that are too deep to pull out.

Nutritionally it is similar to the dandelion: loaded with iron, B vitamins, vitamin C, and vitamin K.

So what are the best ways to use this amazing plant?

Plantain Poultice

Perhaps the easiest way to use plantain medicinally is to make a poultice. Just about everyone recommends a similar process.  Collect the leaves, chop them, mash them a little, and place them over a cut, wound, bite, boil, infection, splinter, or sting. Then wrap with a cloth to hold them in place. In her book, Gladstar states that the poultice may need to be replaced with fresh leaves every half hour or so, as they do their work of pulling out infection.

Like most herbs, you can also turn plantain into teas, tinctures, salves, and oils.

In the Kitchen

Plantain’s green leaves can be sautéed like spinach, added to a green smoothie, or boiled to bring out the sweetness. It is, of course, edible raw, but its bitterness makes it unpalatable for most.

Have you ever made use of this glorious weed? Please share your experiences!

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Comments

  1. Karen says

    Grandma picked cow greens from the pasture that I remember mostly as a mix of plantain, mustard and dandelion greens. She didn’t cook them. Bacon grease and vinegar were heated and poured over to wilt.

    • says

      I read a story recently of a woman who used the same method (chew and apply) for bee stings. Great to know it’s good for mosquito bites, too. And thanks for sharing the salve recipe! I pinned it and will definitely be making some next year!

  2. says

    If I’m correct, I think these are “doc leaves”… when I was growing up in England we would play outside and get stung by nettles all the time… Whenever we got stung we would forage about for doc (doctor) leaves, break them, and rub the green juice on our stings… Then get straight back to playing again!

  3. mary delong says

    I make a rub for my sore knee and other joints with beeswax, coconut oil and plantain. Gather the seed tops for selenium

  4. Bethany Newell says

    I learned about the plantain this past summer taking a plant biology class. I had literally just pulled tons of these little weeds from my garden that week. This stuff is everywhere in my yard. I couldn’t wait to try it. A few weeks later my daughter had a bug bite that was itchy. I ran to the yard and got a plantain leaf. I chewed it up and then put the chewed up mush on the bug bite. Immediately the itch was gone. I used the plantain the rest of the summer. What an awesome little plant.

    • says

      It’s amazing isn’t it? This useful plant grows absolutely everywhere and so few people know about it! I will definitely be using it for bug bites myself this coming summer!

  5. Katrina says

    We used plantain to cure our daughter’s tooth infection. Poultices of this amazing herb drew the infection right out! We also gave her golden seal tincture.
    We use a salve with plantain, comfrey, calendula and something else I am forgetting in olive oil and coconut oil as an alternative to neosporin. It works wonders on cuts, scrapes, diaper rash, etc.

    • says

      I grow calendula specifically for making salve, but I love the idea of adding plaintain and comfrey to it as well. I will definitely be giving this a try – thanks for sharing!

    • Julie Doe says

      Katrina – I would be interested in your Neosporin alternative salve. Can you pass on your recipe or tell me where to find it? Also, how long does a salve normally keep? I don’t have kids, so we don’t use stuff like that terribly often but I would love to have it for when we do!

    • says

      Hi Faithe, It’s confusing when two plants have the same name, isn’t it? The two are related in name only. The herbal plantain is a low-growing “weed” and does not bare fruit.

  6. Karen Graham says

    I make plantain oil by filling jars with the leaves and adding olive oil to cover and letting it sit for 6 weeks. Then I use it to make salve sometimes combining with calendula oil.

    • Julie Doe says

      I have heard that making infused oils with fresh herbs (ie basil, rosemary, etc) can create botulism, that you need to dry the herbs first to remove the excess moisture or infuse the oil via the cooking method and then use it quickly. Is this the case with calendula and plantain?

      • says

        Hi Julie, I haven’t heard that but did a little research and it seems that you are correct, there is some risk of botulism with infused oils. It seems that this is particularly a concern with culinary oils that you will be ingesting (but I imagine spreading botulism on your skin isn’t the best idea either….) Drying the herbs first will eliminate the risk, as will starting the process with clean sterilized jars, and storing the oil in the fridge when the infusion is complete. That being said I personally make my calendula oil with fresh flowers, as do most herbalists. Thanks for your question! It is definitely something worth looking in to.

        • radarphos says

          On the subject of botulism, I thought I would mention something I learned earlier today (7/5/2014) about Pressure Canning, which is that botulism dies at 235 degrees
          F or hotter; and that canning by burying food jars in water cannot kill botulism (if it is present) since the water only heats up to 212 degrees F (and when it completely covers jars, they also heat up only to the same degree as the water). What makes Pressure (Cooker) Canning different is that only about 3 Qts of water is added to the pot, which brings the water level up to about 25%-33% of the height of the jars. The next result is that steam “super heats”, which means that it gets hotter than boiling water, and it is that extra heat that kills botulism in canning jars (if it is present). Cooks know that water will start “steaming” before it reaches the boiling point. In the same way, captured and pressurized steam rises in temperature above the boiling point. This is well known and understood in certain HVAC water boiler heaters as well as steam boiler heaters. I just thought I would mention it since had never seen Pressure Canners in operation before, and I had just presumed that water (over canning jars) boiling in a covered pot was sufficient to kill botulism.

  7. Wendy Ray says

    Here’s another trivia tidbit about plantain: the seeds, when mature, are none other than the famous PSYLLIUM, aka., that fiber supplement stuff: a powder with amazing power to absorb liquids AND makes a pretty good juice jello when you’re out of gelatin. :) In a pinch, you can use psyllium powder for the same medicinal uses as the leaves.
    My chickens love to eat both, and I don’t mind throwing young leaves in salads and smoothies. A chewed leaf (or other poultice or salve made from plantain) really does work WONDERS on anything that itches.

  8. says

    Excellent! I am loving this. I work with plants for a living and I never knew this. I have this plant all over my yard and look forward to sharing its benefits with my family and friends. Thank you!

  9. Carol G. says

    Is there any other plants that are similar enough to be mistaken for the plantain in Michigan? I seem to be gifted with an abundance of what looks like plantain in my country “lawn.” I just want to make sure I do not to harvest the wrong plant since I am new to it. Thanks for any help you can offer.

    • Wendy says

      It’s a good idea to google some images and get some confidence for yourself, but all I have seen and read suggests that the veins all coming up from the stem (as opposed to coming off a central stalk) are a fool-proof sign. The most common plantain herb has a seed stalk that comes up the second year and grows hundreds of tiny black seeds inside little brown shells all up and down the rattlesnake’s tail-looking stalk(s) growing from the center. There’s not a poisonous look-alike for those seed stalks (which, by the way, are the famous psyllium, which many fiber supplements are made from) There are a few edible varieties that do not have the same flowers and seed pods, but they all have the leaf veins in common.

    • says

      Although I am not a wild plants expert, from what I have read plantain is prolific and wide-spread, so it’s probably what you have growing in your lawn. One blogger suggests that if you slowly break the stem of a leaf and pull it apart slowly and the veins remain attached, then it’s plantain. This site mentions a few possible look-alike plants: http://www.herballegacy.com/Ahlborn_Location.html however, the flowers should make them easily identifiable. Hope that helps!

  10. Bridget says

    carol, I grew up many years in the country in Mich…………..my grandmother (who was raised in Ky.) knew all of the plants and what they were good for……….. I believe she referred to the plantain as “pig ears”…………I miss her wisdom……….and I’m afraid that I didn’t pay enough attention to what she tried to teach me…………all those “old fashioned” ideas………what I wouldn’t give to have that knowledge now!!!

  11. Megan says

    I use a plantain salve for bug bites-it does a great job. I have also used the spit poultice for a bee sting. I could feel it drawing out the poison! Unfortunately it didn’t alleviate the pain. I probably should have reapplied a few times though. I love plantain!

  12. Tracy says

    interesting I was eating the seed stems that I lightly cooked in butter on the iron flat skillet…good stuff.

  13. rose gauthier says

    My mum used to boil plantain with barley every few months and told us to drink to cleanse our kidneys!
    Her god-son was to have surgery for kidney stones in a weeks time but after drinking everyday for 5 days, stones were broken up and passed out in urine………was not operated and is in his 70s now!

  14. Cynthia Hoff says

    My boss’s dad was severely burned decades ago. Modern medicine could not get the burns to fully heal. A healer told his wife to pick this plant and make a poultice and apply 3 times a day to the remaining wounds. They healed within a few weeks! Drew out the infection and pain. Great plant.

  15. Lesli says

    Thanks Andrea, for your article on plantago. I was excited to learn more of its history from your writing. I love this plant too! Every Spring I teach a class on salve making with this plant and other yard plants. My favorite way to use plantago is to pick it, dry it, infuse it in oil, then use the oil for a healing salve and as an ingredient in a muscle relief salve. I save the strained leaves and either bake them or sauté them. This way they are crispy and far more tasty than cooking them or eating them fresh, similar to cooking kale this way. I really enjoyed your article!

  16. Catherine says

    You are correct, it is not the same as the dock plant proper. As a native of NJ, though, I can say that dock is just a local colloquial name for plantain that we have in the northeast. I knew it as that way before I got into wildcrafting and heard the name plantain:-)

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