Plantago major or Broad-leaved plantain, is found in abundance all over the world, known to many cultures by many different names such as Rat-tail plantain, Bird’s Meat, Ripple Grass, Slan-lus, Waybroad, Snakeweed and Cuckoo’s Bread. Very fittingly, the Native Americans named it White Man’s Footprint, as it seemed to pop up wherever the white man went to form settlements.
Is it a weed or is it a wonder? Plantago is hardy, persistent and tough to get rid of, grows just about everywhere that you don’t want it to grow like paths, driveways and lawns. It actually thrives in disturbed, prepared or compacted soil, therefore frowned upon by many, completely unaware of what lurks within…
For centuries Plantago has been used as a medicine, both orally and topically for a vast variety of ailments ranging from skin conditions to lung and stomach complaints. Thanks to modern day science, this largely unwanted evergreen was studied and found to be of multifunctional use. No wonder that great poets and writers like Henry Longfellow (The Song of Hiawatha) and William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet) mentioned this “wonder”ful plant in their writings (a wonder after all).
The root, leaves and seeds can all be used. Gathering seed is time consuming but worth the effort and can be used as is or ground into a powder. The young and tender leaves can be eaten raw, or pan-fried for a second to bring out the asparagus-like taste. The older more fibrous leaves can be cooked in stews or used for making tea. The leaves, young and old can be dried for later use. It can be infused into oil. The crushed or blended root (and the rest of the plant) can be used in poultices or salves and if you add a bit of water and let it run through a sieve, the green watery result can be kept in the fridge for a week or two. Why go to all this effort?
A Brazilian pharmaceutical study done on Plantago extract confirmed it’s analgesic qualities and explains why the Native Americans have chewed on the root to ease toothache. It contains salicylic acid, an ingredient of aspirin.
Drinking organic plantago tea could:
- lower fever
- ease menstrual cramps
- ease stomach pain
Salicylic acid is also used topically to treat acne and warts, so a strong tea or poultice directly onto nasty spots and bumps could certainly alleviate the pain and swelling.
The seed is not only a potent fiber boost, but it’s psyllium (husks) is used in many laxative preparations of which Metamucil is one. It is worth adding a sprinkle to your breakfast cereal for better digestive health.
Allantoine was discovered in the early 20th century. This substance shed light on why certain plants had been used for ages as an efficient healer of wounds and skin ulcers. Plantago is rich in allantoine, which promotes the growth of epithelial cells, acts as disinfectant and reduces scarring. It is often used in cosmetic creams and lotions, dandruff shampoos, aftershave lotions and sunblock for it’s healing properties. It has been proven to speed up the regeneration of skin cells and because it also holds on to water, it has a hydrating effect on the skin, all wanted properties in the name of beauty. At home, dunk a ball of cotton wool into cooled plantago tea and use it morning and evening, as a refreshing tonic for the face and whenever needed for calming insect bites and disinfecting minor cuts and burns.
The leaves are nutritious. It contains a fair amount of vitamins and minerals. It has quite a bit of calcium which of course is essential for healthy bones and teeth. Vitamin A is necessary for healthy eyes and skin, vitamin C boosts the immune system and is an antioxidant, protecting the body against free radicals and vitamin K helps blood to clot and could be useful for internal bleeding. It also plays a part in healthy bone mineral density and inhibits the formation of calcification in arteries. Next time you come across a sprightly young plantago plant, pick the young leaves and let it find it’s way onto a sandwich or into a salad.
Plantago makes a great cough syrup due to the presence of mucilage, a sticky, gluey substance that acts as a demulcent, which means it forms a soothing film over inflamed mucous membranes, instantly relieving one of irritation. An easy way to use this is by mixing the above mentioned green water with a bit of honey for a double dose of goodness and to make it a bit more appetizing. Take a big teaspoon full whenever needed as a sure way of easing a cough and a sore throat.
Plantago’s main uses has been highlighted, but rest assured, there are many more, with ample reason to not run for the pesticides, pickaxe or shovel at the sight of a plantago peeping through a crack in your pavement. Just think health and thank nature and science… Nature for it’s persistence, and science for confirming the goodness of nature.
P.S. To avoid any confusion, “plantago” was used rather than “plantain” as plantain also refers to a type of banana.
Tilford, Gregory L, & Gladstar, Rosemary (1998). From Earth to Herbalist, an Earth-conscious Guide to Medicinal Plants.
Duke, James (2001). Handbook of Edible Weeds. CRC Press.