We’re talking about plantain weed, not the banana. It’s a common wild green that grows in empty lots, along the side of the road, and unnoticed patches of dirt. And in your lawn. Some 200 species of plantain are known, but the two you’re most likely to encounter in urban settings are ribwort Plantago lanceolata with the long leaves and cute umbrella flowers and greater, or broad-leaf plantain Plantago major with the long stripes of flowers.
They grow all over the world, and pop up in early spring. It’s still winter where I’m writing from – Israel – but already I’ve seen some healthy stands of plantain, and gathered some juicy green leaves for home remedies.
Plantain leaves are edible for a short time in spring, while they’re still small and tender. Mature leaves are too tough to enjoy as a vegetable. The great thing about plantain is its multiple uses as medicine, its numerous potential health benefits, and its versatility (it can be naturally processed to extract flavanoids, tannins, and terpenes in bulk.)
Plantain soothes inflammations
A poultice of crushed plantain leaves, or a cotton pad soaked in strong plantain tea and applied to the irritated part brings down insect bites, rashes, acne, hemorrhoids, or swellings around wounds. For example, a gargle of plantain tea will reduce the swelling and pain in the mouth after a tooth is removed.
Plantain leaves pull infected matter out
Let’s say a splinter in your finger got infected. Soak the finger in warm plantain tea and the splinter will draw out easily; and so will the pus around it. A compress of plantain tea will help bring painful acne and boils to a head, and clean them out. This is especially effective if you add a teaspoon of fresh or dried chickweed to the tea.
Having heard stories of how crushed fresh plantain draws out the poison of insect and spider bites, I tried it myself when some creature deep inside a plant I was harvesting bit me. I still don’t know what it was, but a field poultice of plantain leaves crushed between my palms, then applied to the bite, brought down the swelling and pain within minutes. There was no infection or irritation afterward.
Plantain leaf is antiseptic and soothing
Drinking plantain tea helps conquer internal infections too. It brings up mucus when there’s unproductive coughing. It’s a mild diuretic, which together with its soothing mucilage cools down irritation in the urinary tract. Plantain leaf tea also soothes inflammation in the digestive tract. Read the caveats at the bottom of this post about taking plantain internally.
You can harvest plantain leaves any time they’re above ground, but best is to take them in spring and early summer, when they’re still green and vibrant. Take no more than 1/3 of any one plant, and make sure you’re not taking the “mother” plant (see our post about ethical foraging here).
Recipe for plantain earache remedy
I infuse fresh plantain leaves in olive oil to treat earaches. Rinse the leaves to get rid of roadside dirt and towel-dry them carefully. Hang them up to dry further for a few hours, or spread them out on a clean, dry towel. Water in the infused oil will turn it rancid.
Chop the leaves finely, put them in a very clean, very dry jar and cover them with good olive oil. Close the lid on the jar and place it in a saucepan; pour water into the pan to come up about 3/4 of the jar’s height.
Cook the jar at a medium-low temperature for 2 hours: add more hot water if it looks like it’s evaporating away. Either let the jar cool in the water bath or remove it from the pan and set it down on a folded towel to avoid shocking the glass.
Strain the oil into another clean, dry jar. Label it with the contents and the date, and keep it in a dark, cool place. It will last a year if carefully prepared and stored.
This remedy works for common earaches. If there is major pain, deafness or pus exuding from the ear, see a doctor immediately.
Maybe you heard about psyllium at Whole Foods?
Psyllium, or plantain seeds. Best known as a bulk laxative, psyllium is the husk of plantain seeds.
Psyllium absorbs water or other liquids, swelling and becoming mucilaginous – goopy, in other words. This beneficial mucilage soothes the digestive tract and brings down inflammation, while the fibrous material stimulates the bowels. The well-known laxative Metamucil is largely made up of psyllium.
You can make your own laxative by gathering a good quantity of plantain stalks and hanging them up to dry upside down. Keep a sheet of newspaper under them, to catch any seeds that fall when dry. Once the seeds are thoroughly dry, draw the flower heads through your fingers to loosen the seeds. Or just pick the stalks in late summer, when the flowers and seeds have dried.
Before ingesting the seed, let them soften and swell in water. A tablespoon of seeds in juice, water, tea or even a smoothie should do it. Just make sure to drink a large glass of liquid afterward, to ensure that the psyllium moves along inside you and does the job.
There are few caveats with plantain, but they’re worth knowing
Avoid plantain if you’re taking blood thinners or have blood clotting issues. If suffering from acid reflux, avoid plantain. Pregnant or nursing women should consult a qualified herbal practitioner about taking plantain. Do not take plantain internally if taking Lithium and digoxin, as plantain may affect absorption of these drugs.
Plantain is a mild diuretic, but should not be taken if you’re already taking prescription diuretics; the combination may exacerbate potassium loss.
Medicinal plants are exactly that: medicine.
As with all medicines, there may be allergic reactions. Plantain is so mild a remedy that it’s generally considered safe, but it’s always a good idea to know what you’re taking.