Plantain (Plantago ssp)

by Opal Kesling

Plantain is well-known among herbalists as one of the best, most readily-available herbs for first aid. Whether you need to soothe a rash, extract a stubborn splinter, or staunch bleeding while awaiting medical help, plantain has your back in a crisis. It is also a gentle and effective alterative that can be of great use in long-term and chronic health problems.  Because it is an abundant, generally-safe weed that offers quick results in a variety of medicinal applications, plantain makes an excellent herbal ally for children and beginning herbalists. “Meeting” herbs as living plants can offer a much richer sense of the herb’s personality than using the dried plant or prepared medicine alone. We forge an even deeper bond with a plant when we are able to live alongside it, watching it change with the seasons and using it in different capacities according to our changing needs. Across multiple continents, plantain is ready to strike up a friendship with even the most walled-in city dwellers: it thrives in lawns, along roadsides, and in the narrow strips of dirt surrounding urban homes and businesses.

Common Names: plantain, white-man’s footprint, waybread, Englishman’s foot, fleawort, ribwort

Description: Plantain is a member of the Plantageinaceae family [1]. There are hundreds of species of plantain, but the two best-known to Western herbalists are Plantago lanceolata (known as lance-leaf, ribwort, or narrow-leaf plantain) and Plantago major (known as greater, common, or broad-leaf plantain) [2]. There is no clear consensus as to which variety is preferable for any given medicinal use. U.S.-based herbalists tend to call for Plantago major [8]; however, Dutch chemist and author Nico Vermeulen states that pharmaceutical extractions are more often sourced from lanceolata, due to its higher concentrations of active constituents [3]. I use whichever species is closest at hand, and have always had excellent results. Both Plantago major and lanceolata feature a rosette of smooth-edged green leaves ribbed with long, parallel veins that are especially prominent on the leaf’s underside. In late spring or summer, the plant develops one or more tall, narrow flower stalks. Plantago lanceolata has long, narrow leaves, and each stalk is topped with a single small, dense seed cluster that blooms in the summer [2].  Plantago major’s leaves are rounded ovals, and the stalks flower and bear seeds along almost their entire length [3, 4]. Plantain leaves may be smooth or hairy, depending on the variety.

Origin and History: Plantain grows native across wide swaths Europe and Asia, and has an ancient tradition of medicinal use in these regions. In feudal Russia, when travel was a rare and dangerous endeavor, serfs regarded this readily-available food and medicine as God’s gift to travelers. While journeying, they sewed plantain seeds and recited prayers in order to bring good luck [5]. Plantain even appears, under the name “Wegbrade,” or Waybread, in the Lacgunga, a 10th century Anglo-Saxon herbal anthology [6]. Plantain is one of the herbs called for in the Lacgunga’s Nine Herb Charm, an herbal preparation and accompanying spell designed to protect against the wind-born toxins that Anglo-Saxons held responsible for the spread of disease. The charm says of plantain:
 

And you, Waybread, mother of herbs,
Open from the east, mighty inside.
over you chariots creaked, over you queens rode,
over you brides cried out, over you bulls snorted.
You withstood all of them, you dashed against them.
May you likewise withstand poison and infection


Even in the 10th century, plantain was known for its rare ability to withstand repeated trampling!

Plantain’s tenacity and ability to thrive in disturbed soil allowed it to spread rapidly in colonized lands.  When European settlers brought the plant to the Americas, indigenous people supposedly nicknamed it “white man’s foot” [11].  Plantain has naturalized in Australia as well.[3].

Parts Used: Leaves and seeds

Cultivation & Wild Harvest: In America, Australia, Europe, and northern and central Asia, plantain grows freely in lawns, parks, trails, and roadsides.  If you wish to grow plantain, direct seed in the spring once the soil is warm [7]. Plantago major does well in partial shade and slightly moist soil, while Plantago lanceolata prefers more sun and drier soil [7]. This plant is not picky though, and given the chance, will self-seed and spread throughout your yard.

Plantain leaves are an edible green, good raw in salads or lightly cooked in sautés. For culinary use, gather leaves in the early spring when they are young and tender [2]. Older leaves are too tough and stringy to be palatable.  For medicinal uses, the leaves are best harvested in the spring and early summer, before the flowers reach full bloom. In a pinch, though, plantain leaf can be harvested anytime you find it growing- plantain’s near-constant availability is a huge part of its appeal and herbal personality! The seeds are easiest to harvest in late summer or fall, when they have dried and can be easily stripped from the stalk [2]. You can also pick the stalks earlier in the summer, dry them yourself, and then remove the seeds.
 

Medicinal Properties: vulnerary, expectorant, diuretic, demulcent, astringent, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, alterative, hepatoprotective, hemostatic

Chemical Makeup: iridoid glycosides (2.5%), aucubin, apigenin, baicalein, catapol, asperuloside, flavonoids, mucilage (2%), tannins (6.5%), phenolic acids, saponins and flavonoids [1, 3, 4, 8]

Energetics and Taste: Plantain leaf is bland in taste, with a slight bitter edge. It is mildly cooling [9, 10]. It contains both mucilage and tannins, meaning it soothes and moistens tissues while also drying and tightening them. This gives plantain a uniquely balanced energy. Plantain seeds are bland/sweet, and very mucilaginous. When soaked in water, they attain a gel-like consistency.
 

Organs Systems Affected: skin, blood, mucous membranes, throat, lungs, bladder and urinary tract, gut, gallbladder, liver, eyes

Medicinal Uses:

Scientific Research: In parts of the world where herbal medicine is often prescribed by mainstream doctors, plantain is widely recognized as an effective remedy. In Russia, it is commercially cultivated for medicinal use and frequently prescribed by physicians [5]. The German Commission E has authorized its internal use for coughs and bronchitis, as well as external use for inflammatory skin ailments [14]. Plantain is considered anti-inflammatory in both internal and external uses; tests have shown that this may be due to plantain’s iridoid glycoside content, which seems to suppress prostaglandin formation [3]. One particular iridoid glycoside, aucubin, is easily metabolized into aucubigenin, a compound with potent antibacterial properties [3]. In vitro testing has found plantain leaf to be effective against a range of bacteria, including Salmonella typhi, Salmonella paratyphi, Shigella dysenteriae and Staphylococcus aureus [13].

Topical Uses: Western Herbalism

Plantain leaf is a go-to herb for just about any kind of rash, irritation, bite, sting, or wound. It soothes, cools, disinfects, staunches bleeding, speeds tissue healing, and extracts toxins and foreign matter. Plantain infused oil and liniment are excellent additions to first-aid kits and travel packs. My partner, who has a fear of bleeding, carries some in their backpack to ease their anxiety about potential injuries. I keep some within easy reach in the kitchen, and have seen it quell profuse bleeding in seconds. Plantain can help soothe the inflammation and itch of insect bites and rashes from poisonous plants- I find a cool compress of a washcloth dipped in strong plantain tea works best for this (11). Plantain’s combination of toning tannins and soothing mucilage makes it a good remedy for hemorrhoids and for excessive vaginal discharge.  It also works well as a mouthwash for inflamed gums or canker sores.

The Craft of Herbal Fermentation Course by Herbal Academy

A unique trait that sets plantain leaf apart from most other tissue-healing plants is its intense drawing ability. Plantain can help bring a blister or pimple to a head, pull a stinger out of a bee sting, or extract a deeply-imbedded splinter. It is an unparalleled herb for treating poisonous or infected bites and stings, and, when no other treatment is available, can even be used against blood poisoning (though I would advise anyone with a blood infection or poisonous bite to seek professional medical help ASAP!). Plantain would also be one of my first recommendations as an internal and external remedy for those suffering from acne and other inflammatory skin conditions. Irritated, inflammatory skin conditions are energetically hot-natured; a cooling and soothing herb like plantain is often much more appropriate than harsh antibacterials and exfoliants or hyper-concentrated, potentially irritating essential oils.
 

Internal Uses: Western Herbalism

Plantain is an excellent herb for internal tissues as well as external skin. In cases of upper respiratory infection and irritated cough, plantain leaf’s expectorant properties help the body expel mucus, while its anti-inflammatory and vulnerary actions calm irritated tissues. In tonsillitis, gargling with and drinking plantain tea can help fight bacteria and draw out puss. Plantain has a mild diuretic effect, and its aucubin content boosts the kidneys’ uric acid production [8]. These properties, along with its cooling, soothing, antiseptic effects, make it a good ingredient in blends for cystitis and urinary tract infections. Plantain leaf also makes an effective treatment for a wide range of digestive complaints. In Russia, doctors prescribe it for stomach ache, low digestive acidity, and for stomach ulcers with low or normal acidity [5]. Plantain can also combat inflammation and prevent infection in cases of diverticulitis and other inflammatory digestive disorders. The seed of the plant is also used for gut health. Psyllium seed, the primary ingredient in Metamucil, is a form of plantain seed, usually sourced from the Plantago ovata or Plantago psyllium species. While psyllium-containing products are generally marketed as bulk laxatives, many find that the soothing, gel-forming soluble fiber of plantain seed can also calm chronic diarrhea.

As well as being useful for acute complaints, plantain’s harmlessness (barring contraindication or allergy) makes it an excellent herb for tonic use. Plantain purifies the blood, supports the liver and gallbladder, promotes bladder, urinary tract, and digestive health, and offers an array of easily-absorbed vitamins and minerals. For those with a tendency towards ailments of any of these systems, taking plantain regularly can eliminate or lessen the reoccurrence of acute illness.

Use in Traditional Chinese Medicine:

TCM puts more emphasis on the seed of the plant than Western herbalism. Energetically sweet and cooling, the seeds are used to clear damp heat associated with diarrhea, edema, painful urination, and sexual dysfunction. Plantain seeds are also prescribed to calm inflammatory eye conditions by quelling excess liver heat. TCM practitioners use the leaf of the plant to treat inflammatory skin ailments by purging heat toxins, and to help the body expel mucus in coughs characterized by phlegm-heat. [12, 13]
 

Suggested Blends:

For drawing blisters/pimples to a head, or drawing foreign objects from the skin: plantain leaf and piñon resin warm-infused in oil. I first made this for a friend who had received surgical skin grafts, and was getting persistent puss-filled pimples on the area as the body purged dead cells. I made this to hasten the process; he reported that it worked almost alarmingly quickly.
For minor cuts/scrapes/burns: plantain leaf, comfrey leaf, and calendula flower infused in oil.

To stop bleeding: Plantain leaf and yarrow
For hemorrhoids: Plantain leaf, marshmallow root, and witch hazel leaf
For poisonous plant rashes: Plantain leaf and jewelweed
For itchy bug bites: Plantain leaf, calendula, and aloe gel
For infections: plantain leaf, yellow dock, and chaparral

For diarrhea: plantain leaf infusion with plantain seed
For constipation: yellowdock, triphala, and plantain seed
For cystitis/UTI’s: plantain leaf, uva ursi, marshmallow root, juniper berry
For chronic urinary discomfort: plantain leaf, marshmallow root, cleavers, chickweed

For cough/bronchitis: hot infusion of plantain leaf, osha, elecampane, licorice, and thyme
For ulcers and digestive inflammation: Plantain leaf, slippery elm, marshmallow root, and licorice.

Organic Dried Plantain Leaf

Organic Dried Plantain Leaf

Precautions and Contraindications: Plantain is generally considered a safe, edible plant. However, people who take blood thinners or are prone to excessive blood clotting should avoid plantain. Plantain may effect the absorption of medications through the gut, notably lithium and the heart medicine digoxin. It is safest to avoid plantain while taking these medicines, and to take it several hours away from any other prescription drugs. Plantain may increase the potassium-loss associated with prescription diuretics. Because plantain is sometimes used to slightly elevate stomach acid levels and increase secretion of digestive juices, it is best avoided in cases of serious acid reflux. If you are pregnant or nursing, it is best to consult a qualified practitioner before using plantain. As with any plant or substance, allergic reactions are possible. [1]
 

Dosage and Delivery: For internal medicinal use, plantain leaf can be juiced, or prepared as a tincture or tea. Hot tea is preferable to tincture when treating ailments of the mouth, throat, lungs, or digestive tract. Precise dosing is not critical because plantain is widely considered safe; every herbal or source gives slightly different guidelines. In acute ailments, I would personally take 1-2 ml of tincture 6 times per day, or 1.5 quarts of infusion taken throughout the day (infuse 1 heaping TB leaves per cup of water, and steep at least 15 minutes and up to 10 hours). For long-term health complaints, I would start with acute dosage for several days, then decrease to 1 ml of tincture or 1 cup of infusion, 3 times per day.

For external use, fresh plantain leaf can be juiced or mashed into a poultice, and fresh or dried leaf can be infused in oil, macerated in rubbing alcohol to create a liniment, or brewed like a strong tea for use as a wash or compress. The fresh leaf works very well as a “spit poultice” made by chewing the fresh leaf and applying it to the affected area. This is a trick that kids often love to try out on their mosquito bites and small scrapes (this also creates opportunity to teach kids the importance of conclusively identifying a plant before using it). Chewing a poultice may seem unhygienic to some, but the enzymes in saliva actually convert the aucubin contained in the plant to the more-potent antimicrobial compound aucubigenin [11]. If the spit-poultice is not for you, though, it will also work perfectly well to mash the leaf with a mortar and pestle.
 

Dried plantain seeds can be stirred into water or juice, or blended with smoothies or other watery foods. It’s best to let them soften a few minutes before consuming. Be sure to drink plenty of water while taking plantain seed, since it continues to absorb moisture in the gut [1].

Ian Opal Kesling is a self-taught herbalist and staff member at The Herb Shoppe, an herbal medicine store located in Portland Oregon. They first joined The Herb Shoppe staff in early 2015, and strive through their position to support others in forging empowered relationships with their minds and bodies. In non-Herb-Shoppe pursuits, Opal has worked at a community counseling center, practiced therapeutic art with children, taught kids' self-defense, and co-edited a book. They hope to build a career path that incorporates their passions for writing, art, therapy and medicine. Outside of work, Opal enjoys creating hand-poked tattoos, and lounging with their spouse and two cats.

Ian Opal Kesling is a self-taught herbalist and staff member at The Herb Shoppe, an herbal medicine store located in Portland Oregon. They first joined The Herb Shoppe staff in early 2015, and strive through their position to support others in forging empowered relationships with their minds and bodies. In non-Herb-Shoppe pursuits, Opal has worked at a community counseling center, practiced therapeutic art with children, taught kids' self-defense, and co-edited a book. They hope to build a career path that incorporates their passions for writing, art, therapy and medicine. Outside of work, Opal enjoys creating hand-poked tattoos, and lounging with their spouse and two cats.

 
 

Works Cited:

1        “Plantain.” Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. Gale Cengage Learning, 2008. Alt MD. Web. Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.

http://www.altmd.com/Articles/Plantain--Encyclopedia-of-Alternative-Medicine

2       Sokulski, Melissa, and Jason Oliphant. “The Wild Edible Series Part 3: Plantain.” Food Under Foot, 2009.  Web. Accessed    10 Feb. 2017. 
PDF available at: http://www.foodunderfoot.com/WildEdibleDownload/part3/PLANTAIN%20-%20Wild%20Edible%20Series.pdf

3       Vermeulen, Nico. The Complete Encyclopedia of Herbs. Toronto: MGR Publishing, 1998. Pgs. 231-232.

4       Wink, Michael, and Ben-Erik van Wyk. Medicinal Plants of the World. Singapore: Times Editions, 2004. Pg. 246.

5       Zevin, Igor Vilevich. A Russian Herbal: Traditional Remedies for Health and Healing. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1997. Pgs.

6       “Plants in the Saxon World.” PSU Medieval Garden. Web. Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.

 http://www.psumedievalgarden.com/sacred_saxon_herbs.html

7        Ed. Lewis, Lynn and Sarah Baker. The Complete Illustrated Book of Herbs. Pheasantville: The Reader’s Digest Association, 2009.

8       Tierra, Michael. The Way of Herbs. New York: Pocket Books, 1980. Pgs 179-180.

9       Wood, Matthew. The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism. Berkley: North Atlantic Books, 2004.

10   Frawley, David, and Vasant Lad. The Yoga of Herbs. Twin Lakes: Lotus Press, 2001.

11    Bennett, Robin Rose. The Gift of Healing Herbs. Berkley: North Atlantic Books, 2014. Pgs. 281-289.

12   Reid, Daniel P. Chinese Herbal Medicine. Boston: Shambhala, 1993. Pg. 109.

13   Zhufan, Xie. Practical Traditional Chinese Medicine. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2000. Pgs 202-203.