Plantain – A Very Humble & Persistent Little Weed

Plantain (Plantago Major L.) is generally considered to be a weed; one description even reads ‘a short, fat, ugly weed’!! But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In actuality Plantain has a long history as one of the best healing herbs on the planet; and is probably the biggest masochist of the plant world – it loves to be trampled. 
Plantains leaves have been used for centuries all over the world as a remedy for wounds, bites, stings and problems related to the skin.

Plantain Classification

Latin Name: Plantago major syn. Plantago borysthenica, Plantago dregeana, Plantago latifolia, Plantago sinuata.

Plant Family: Plantaginaceae

Common Names: Common Plantain, Greater Plantain, Broadleaf Plantain, Way Bread, Snake Weed, Ripple Grass, White Man’s Foot

Ribwort & Common Plantain Leaves
Ribwort (Left) Greater (Right)
Plantain Flowers
Plantain Male Flowers
Plantain Flowers
Plantain Female Flowers

Plantain Description

Greater Plantain is a low to short perennial herb found on grassy, open waste & disturbed habitats such as trampled paths and tracks, field edges, roadsides, gardens, lawns and meadows.
 
It grows in a wide range of soils (except highly acidic soils) and ‘can produce a large and persistent seed bank’.
 
Whilst there are many, many plantains (all in the same family Plantaginaceae), it is the greater plantain (pictured left) and the Ribwort (Narrowleaf or English) Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) that have the most effective active ingredients.
 
Greater Plantain has fat, oval shaped leaves, Ribwort has narrower lance shaped leaves. Both leaves have the characteristic parallel veins, more noticeable and raised on the underside of the leaf.
 
Both have flowers that mature from the bottom to the top, so the bottom can show brown, whilst the middle shows white and the top still developing. The left 3 images show male flowers, whilst the right 4 are female flowers.

History & Folklore

Plantain is one of the ancient Saxons ‘Nine Sacred Herbs’. It is believed that the ‘waybread’ (Wegbrade) in the Nine Herbs Charm is Plantain. Although this seems to have been due to its medicinal properties rather than its magical.
Plantain seed is often found in grain seeds and it is thought that this is how the herb spread across the world.  It was called “White man’s footprint” by Native Americans because it sprouted up wherever European settlers had spent any amount of time.
The classic Latin name Plantago was formed from the Latin word ‘Planta‘ meaning the ‘sole of the foot’. It was also called “Soldier’s herb” due to its use as a field dressing.
In Devon it was often referred to as ‘Cuckoo Bread’ and it was believed that once, every seven years it changed into a cuckoo and flew away.
It was believed to be a protective plant being hung in the home for this purpose or carried to protect against the dangers of travel such as snake-bites. In Ireland it is associated with St. Patrick who is also associated with ‘averting snakes’.
Used since prehistoric times, it is referenced many times from the Anglo-Saxons to Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Traditional Uses & Benefits of Plantain

Plantains leaves have been used for centuries all over the world as a remedy for wounds and a number of problems related to the skin, respiratory organs, digestive organs, reproductive organs and circulatory system. Both the Greater Plantain & the Ribwort Plantain have these properties. However the Greater Plantain is also edible; use the tender young leaves in salads and the older larger leaves cooked (as you would spinach), all parts of Greater Plantain are edible including the seeds.

A range of biological activities has been found from plant extracts including wound healing activity, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antioxidant, weak antibiotic, immuno modulating and antiulcerogenic activity. Some of these effects may attribute to the use of this plant in folk medicine2

  • Plantain is very high in vitamins A and C and in calcium. 
  • The leaves are a traditional remedy (originally chewed) for bee stings & insect bites, the itching of nettle stings, allergic rashes and minor burns, cuts and sores.
  • The leaves can be used to make a salve for the above purposes.
  • New young leaves can be used raw in salads and cooked as ‘greens’.
  • Older leaves can be used to make a tea/tissane which due to Plantains astringent properties can aid colds and diarrhea.
  • Plantain tea can also be used as a mouthwash for sore gums, throats and mouth ulcers.
  • A Plantain tea can also be used for washing the skin, hair and scalp where ‘itchy or sore’ conditions exist.

Cautions

Although there are no known cautions for this herb as with anything, somebody, somewhere is possibly going to be allergic to it. When trying any ‘new’ food for the first time do so with caution.

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Properties

  • Antibacterial: – destroys or suppresses the growth of bacteria
  • Antimicrobial: – destroys or stops the growth of microorganisms
  • Anti-inflammatory: – reduces inflammation
  • Anti-toxic: – counteracts toxins
  • Vulnerary: – of use in the healing of wounds
  • Astringent: – encourages skin cells to contract

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