Plantain – Soothing Medicine
written by Elise Krohn, GRuB's Director of Wild Foods & Medicines Programs
Plantain lines walkways on the GRuB Farm. The seeds contain mucilage that stick to shoes and are planted wherever people travel. We embrace this “weed” as one of our most useful first aid remedies. Also called frog leaf and Indian Band-Aid, plantain has long been revered for its ability to seal wounds and draw out infections. You will easily find it in yards, fields, and walkways—a reminder that soothing medicine is often close by.
Identifying Plantain: There are about ten species of plantain (Plantago) in North America, some native and some non-native. All have many leaves that flare out from the root. Leaf veins are parallel with strong fibers. Stems are pink or whitish at the base. Flowering heads grow in a saucer or crown shape with creamy-white flowers arranged like a tutu. Flower stalks are leafless. Common plantain (P. major) has stout, thick, hairless leaves that resemble a frog’s back. Narrowleaf plantain or ribwort (P. lanceolata) has slightly hairy, narrow, long leaves. These two European species are common weeds in the Pacific Northwest and are often used in herbal medicine. Seaside plantain or goose tongue plantain (P. maritima) is a native plant with narrow, thick leaves.
How to Harvest: Gather plantain for food in early spring when the leaves are still tender. Plantain leaves can be harvested for medicine anytime in spring through early fall if they look vibrant. Pinch or cut leaves at the base. Use fresh to make a poultice or dry in baskets or paper bags for later use. Do not harvest in areas that have been contaminated like roadsides, dog parks, or yards sprayed with pesticides.
Food: The young leaves of plantain can be eaten in a variety of ways including chopped in salads, sautéed, steamed, and boiled. Plantain is high in vitamins C, A, and K. Leaves can be used as a food wrapping similar to nori sheets or cabbage leaf by boiling them for a minute to soften them, pulling out the fibrous veins from the leaf base, and then wrapping them around meat or grains. Goose tongue plantain can be found on beaches. It is delicious and can be eaten straight or added to salads. Try it steamed and topped with butter and grated cheese.
Plantain Medicine: Students and volunteers on the GRuB farm often learn about plantain—a first aid remedy that is usually within reach. It soothes bites, stings, burns, boils, and other skin irritations, and has the uncanny ability to pull splinters, infections, pus, and dirt out of wounds. Plantain works by cooling and tightening inflamed tissue, acting as an antimicrobial, and promoting tissue healing. If a GRuB student has a plantain success story, the word spreads quickly, and soon the whole crew is fluent in using plantain for medicine. Making a plantain poultice is easy. Simply chew the fresh leaves to break down the cell walls of the plant and release the medicine before placing it directly on a wound. The leaves taste mild—like slightly bitter lettuce. If you don’t want to chew the leaf, you can steam the leaves for a few minutes or dip them in boiling water for about 10 seconds, let them cool to a warm temperature, and place them on a wound. Eating plantain or drinking the leaf tea is soothing and detoxifying, especially to the lower bowel. It is astringent, mucilaginous, and generates tissue healing—making it excellent for restoring gut health. Plantain leaves also act as a disinfectant and a gentle expectorant that soothes irritated lungs. To make tea, use about one tablespoon of dried leaves per cup of boiled water. Steep 15 minutes. Drink several cups a day.
Plantain Oil and Salve
If you want to keep plantain medicine with you all the time, you can prepare an infused oil and turn it into a salve.
• Gather the leaves on a dry day and let them wilt for 12 to 24 hours.
• Coarsely chop the leaves and place them in a blender.
• Add just enough olive oil to cover the leaves and blend to a fine chop.
• Pour into a double boiler or a Pyrex container placed in a pot with a little water. Gently heat for a minimum of six hours or up to several days, turning it on and off as needed so it does not get too hot and boil.
• Press out the oil through muslin cloth and pour in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Store in a cool, dark place. The oil will last about a year.
To Make Salve: Add 1 part beeswax by weight (scale) to 5 parts plantain oil by volume (measuring cup). Gently heat until the beeswax is melted, then store in glass or tin jars. You can add 3–5 drops of healing essential oil like lavender to each ounce of salve.