Plantain: This shit is NOT bananas

On almost any path, in virtually everyone’s yard, in the cracks of sidewalks, you will find a strong little plant that not only tastes good, but that can improve your life.  We call it plantain.

Just to get us all on the same page, I don’t mean the little bananas that you can fry up (hence the title of this post).  I mean the forb with the nutty flavor and distinctive parallel rib veins that you will likely find growing outside of your nearest door or window right now.  (No, seriously.  Go look.)

In the U.S. you can find two varieties of plantain that look slightly different but that you can use interchangeably.  Common plantain (Plantago major) has broad, roundish leaves with several (5-7) distinctive veins running from the base up to the tip of the leaf.  Lanceleaf plantain (P. lanceolata) has longer, more slender leaves (like lances) that also sport the strong parallel veins.  In both species the leaves generally grow in a basal rosette from which long, slender flower stalks will sprout around the summer solstice.  In fact, right now, even in unmowed lawns with tall grass, you can easily spot the abundance of plantain by all the flower stalks that reach up toward the sky.

 

Common (broadleaf) plantain - Plantago major

Common (broadleaf) plantain
Plantago major

Ribwort (lanceleaf) plantain - Plantago lanceolata

Ribwort (lanceleaf) plantain
Plantago lanceolata

I have often used plantain in the past for something to eat.  I have nibbled it on the trail.  I have gathered it from yards to throw in the greens pot.  I even lived for a week on almost nothing but plantain and sow thistle leaves when I couldn’t afford groceries.  But I had never seriously considered the medicinal uses of this wonderful little plant until just recently.

Wildman Steve Brill often recommends it on his tours for insect bites or irritation from stinging nettles.  Because this knowledge represented the sum of my medicinal knowledge concerning this plant, I had relegated it in my mind to serving primarily as a help for minor skin problems.  While it does help in that area, this unassuming plant has so much more to offer.

One of the members of the Anthropik forums called it “The Plant that thought of it all” and listed some of its medicinal applications:

colds, flu, asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, fevers, hypertension, rheumatism, bladder problems, gastritis, ulcers, diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel, cystitis, sinusitis, coughs, kidney stones, intestinal complaints, goiter, PMS, regulating menstrual flow, hoarseness, congestion, hay fever, and as a blood sugar stabilizer

I recently had a couple of chances to try out plantain’s healing properties, and I came away feeling quite impressed.

A few weeks back, while on a play date in the park with my son and some friends, I surprised a honey bee while it sat, minding its own business atop a clover flower.  The poor little insect got caught inside my sandal, underneath my little toe and drove its stinger into my foot, ending its life and startling mine.  I haven’t found myself on the receiving end of an insect’s stinger in quite some time, and I had forgotten how intense the pain feels.  I sat down in the clover and let the fuzzy little worker out of my sandal to die in the grass while I extracted the stinger from the soft skin at the base of my little toe.

I wanted to silence the pain in my foot as quickly as possible so that I could continue having fun with my son and my friends.  Fortunately, I saw that the lawn supported almost as many plantain plants as clover.  I took a leaf from one, bruised it thoroughly between my front teeth and applied it to the place where I had pulled the stinger out.  The juices felt cool on my skin, and the relief started soaking in.  The pain did not immediately stop, but it also did not take long to dissipate.  After 15 minutes or so, I could barely feel the pain from the wound.

The second chance I had to try out plantain’s healing properties hurt even more.  While cleaning out the trunk of my car to get ready to visit my friends Jim and Bonnie for their wedding reception,1 I dropped a heavy board on my toe.  The edge of the 1/8 inch fiberboard cut a gash just below my toe nail, and it hurt like hell.

The brown staining likely comes from the beta carotene and chlorophyll from the plantain leaves that I have used to treat this wound for the past few days. Unfortunately, I did not have the presence of mind to take a picture of the wound after it initially happened.

Since I had very little time left to get ready for the trip and nobody really to help me, I needed to treat the wound quickly and get back to work.  I had just completed a new wiki page for the REWILD.info field guide on plantain, inspired by Jason Godesky’s wonderful article called “Grandfather’s Footsteps” over at Anthropik.  In preparing the wiki article, I noticed that some of the sources attributed a styptic property to plantain leaves.  “Perfect,” I thought, “I already know it can help heal a wound, maybe it can close this one off at the same time.”

I started hobbling around my yard, looking for some plantain.  I had seen so many of the little flower stalks reaching up to the sun just a few days ago, but the lawn mower man had come since then and razed them all.  Eventually, I found a few that had survived the mower’s blade under the shade of the willow by the creek.  I thanked the plant heartily, took a leaf and went inside to wash and treat my wound.

To make a poultice, I munched the leaf blade up between my front teeth to bruise it so that the juices would get into my wound more efficiently.  Then I held it in place on my toe with a bandaid.  The poultice not only helped stop the bleeding, but it has kept the wound from becoming infected at all.

While doing research for the wiki page, I also came across a website that gave a recipe for making plantain infused oil.  The thought of having the healing power of plantain available in an oil or salve really appealed to me, so I wanted to give it a try.  Of course, I still had the problem of not finding any plantain in my yard.  Fortunately, I have a friend who does not mow his yard very often, and plantain grows there in abundance.  My only time to visit him came at night, so I took a lantern and some plastic bags over to his house, and he helped me gather plantain leaves in the dark by artificial light.

Now, I discovered after I had already started my infusion that I made some mistakes.  Susun Weed, in her book Healing Wise, cautions that you should not wash the leaves before you put them in oil in order to keep the possibility of developing mold to a minimum.  I had not read that at the time I started my project, so I dutifully washed all the leaves (which I had also gathered on a wet night–Weed recommends gathering them on a dry day, again to reduce the chance of mold from moisture) in order to prepare them.

I did have some consciousness of the fact that moisture might cause problems with freshness.  Having made pemmican, I knew that in order to preserve something for as long as possible, you really need to get the moisture out.  However, I also thought, “Well, the leaves have moisture inside them as well.  So how does that affect things?”  In the end, I simply tried to dry the leaves as much as possible before putting them in the jar.

The only ingredients you need to make the herbally infused oil consist of the plant, some oil, and a jar to store them in.  I twisted and crushed small handfuls (fingerfulls, really) of leaves and dropped them into a quart-sized canning jar.  The recipe indicated to “Gently fill a container with fresh plantain leaves that have been lightly bruised or crushed.”  I didn’t understand what the “gently” part meant, but I figured that it might indicate that I shouldn’t try to stuff the jar full of leaves.  Once I had filled the jar with the plantain, I poured the oil over them to fill the jar to the rim.  Air can harbor moisture, so getting the jar as full as possible will hopefully reduce the chances for mold.

After I sealed the lid and washed the oil off the outside of the jar (you can’t really put a lid on a brimful jar of oil without some spilling over the edges), I shook it vigorously and set it on the counter.  Working off instructions that Wildman Steve Brill gives for making a tincture of jewelweed, I have shaken the jar each morning and evening in order to help the plantain juices infuse into the oil more efficiently.

The recipe calls for a two week period before straining the plant matter out of the oil.  It also calls for leaving the jar in the sun for this fortnight.  Everything else I have read about herbs cautions to keep them away from direct sunlight, as it destroys nutrients.  So I have kept my oil in the kitchen, away from windows.  You could also keep it in a cupboard or inside a paper bag to prevent sunlight from breaking down the plant’s properties.  Susun Weed’s book also recommended letting the infusion work for six weeks as opposed to two–information that Penny Scout backs up on Urban Scout’s blog post for making a yarrow tincture.  So I have decided to try for six weeks in the dark as opposed to two weeks in the sun.

I hope to report back later that I have a mold-free herbal infusion.  Six weeks feels like a really long time to wait.  Oh well, I guess I have to rewild my patience as much as anything else in my life.

~I wrote this blog in e-prime~
~You should only find the verb “to be” amid the quotations I have cited~

25 responses to this post.

  1. “Tastes good”? I dunno, it’s a little fibrous for my tastes. The seeds are good, though.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Rix on 07/02/2007 at 1:03 pm

    I’ve never had a problem withe fibrousness. The fibers break so easily under your teeth, that it comes across more as crunchy than anything else, and the crunchiness goes well with the nutty flavor.

    I’ve also heard of people feeling put off by the little hairs (trichomes) on the leaves, though I’ve never noticed them myself while eating plantain. To each his/her own, I reckon.

    I haven’t tried the seeds yet. I’ll have to give them a go.

    Reply

  3. This is really great. Thanks Rix.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Rix on 07/03/2007 at 9:24 am

    Well, it’s no “Whiskey in the yarrow!” but I try. :)

    Reply

  5. Good stuff. My brother gave me a plantain salve he made with others at The Tracker School. I imagine he did the same thing but mixed it with vasoline instead of oil. I got it in a baby food jar which is a pretty good size container for such a thing.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Rix on 07/03/2007 at 2:56 pm

    Ha ha. I just had the same thought yesterday, Sassmouth, after feeding my son: “Hey, this little jar would be perfect for plantain salve!” I guess great minds think alike.

    I hadn’t thought of using vaseline. I suppose one could also use tallow. If you keep it warm (but not scalding) for a while, then the plantain would infuse into the grease. Once you strain the plants out, then the tallow should harden again as it cools.

    Reply

  7. For some reason I never expected plantain to taste very good, until one day I chewed some up for a cut and it was pleasant. The only thing I don’t like about it is, around here, it only seems to grow where it’s constantly getting trampled!

    Reply

  8. […] flowers filling in the cracks. (Kudos to whomever spots the plantain plants growing among the […]

    Reply

  9. Posted by bearmedicinewoman on 08/21/2007 at 8:35 pm

    non-industrial (preferably wild, and preferably bear) lard is the best thing for herbal salves, extremely healing for our skin.

    Vaseline is a petroleum product, and I don’t like salves made with it at all, and I’ve heard that it goes bad faster too.

    If you use olive oil, use high quality extra virgin olive oil for best results. Coconut oil, sesame oil, almond oil are also good alternatives.

    If you use lard though, the process if a bit different, and uses a slow heat infusion process.

    Reply

  10. […] , plants After reading about the Scouts’ adventure in making yarrow tincture, and after injuring my toe and needing the healing properties of comfrey, I decided to do a little wildcrafting and get some […]

    Reply

  11. Rix degrees of separation

    It always fascinates me how people get to my blog.  Fortunately, WordPress offers a handy little function that shows you what pages your visitors came from–or, if they came from a search engine, what search terms they used.

    I tend to get a lot …

    Reply

  12. My mom used to show me some of the plants that the African slaves used to eat in order to stay healthy. I wasn’t really trying to learn those things at the time, because I was ashamed of slavery and trying to stay as far away from the subject as possible. Now that my mom has passed away, I often try to remember some of what she said, I guess as a way of holding on to her. Your article on plaintain brought back the day in which she was standing with me in my yard, pointing to the “weed” and saying that I could eat that anytime and not be afraid.
    Today I picked a whole potfull, brought it into the house, weeded and washed it. I haven’t cooked it yet. But it’s bagged up in the fridge. My husband thinks I’m losing it. I’m going to use your blog to prove that this stuff is really edible.

    Keep up the good work, my friend!

    Reply

  13. i am looking for a method of slow coking plantain in oil or lard for poultice

    Reply

  14. Posted by Rix on 05/27/2008 at 9:36 pm

    Larry,

    You don’t need to cook it to make a poultice. Just chew it up, throw it in a blender or shred the leaves up somehow and put the juicy pulp on the wound.

    If what you’re looking for is a way to make an herbal infusion using heat, check out Bear Medicine Woman’s post over at the REWILD.info forums.

    Reply

  15. Posted by Matthew Young on 06/14/2008 at 2:27 pm

    Hello All!
    lovely to read all your experiences. I could not possibly say enough good about plantain. i use it as traditionally indicated, yet often add just a bit to any herbal prep where i feel i need a big favor called in. plantain has one of the most potent, generous healing spirits ive ever encountered. Its also quite user friendly. if you want to test its strength, and im not kidding, just try talking about it often and watch, it will grow more abundantly on your lawn. {it appreciates your attention}. plantain has the unusual indication of being able to sooth inflammation anywehere in the body. Yes, quite a bold statement. this is why the breadth of ailments its useful for is so vast and prolific. As an emergency minor to moderate wound poultice, it is truly without peer. Yet, im going to tempt any of you interested to explore another use of the plant. If you are inclined to explore its deeper healing energy, try the following. Notice where a beautiful,rich, larger then usual specimen of plantain is living.{theres likely one nearby}Approach it, and notice the special conditions of why it thrives there. Greet the plant. and explain your intentions to heal audibly. then honor the plant. give it a gift. some examples; sing to it, chant OM, pour water on it, or offer tobacco, authentically cry, draw it a picture, write it a poem, admire it etc etc. use your creativity, it wont mind at all. Next time you return to it,stop three times on your way and bow in its diretion. understand your doing these actions conscously and with intention. Ask permission to pick some of its leaves and then do so. express you greatfulness, and then create a purification bath. to create the bath, crush and shred some leaves and then add them to an empty bath tub. after wards fill it with hot water. prepare a dilute tea with the remaining leaves and then sit in the bath youve created and drink some of the tea. the room should be mostly dark with little light comeing in. As you sit in the purification bath, sipping the tea,sweating, announce to the plant spirit that you are happy to be within it and to have it, within you. Then commit to stay in the bath until you feel the healing begin. this is not for the weak of heart.you will be visited by the plant spirit in some form or another if you clear you mind, close your eyes and remain open for its arrival. im not jokeing at all here, and i caution any skeptic NOT to try this just to prove something wrong. if you remain there, open and allowing, you will open a channel of communication with a very loveing and benevolent plant spirit that will guide you to stagnant unresolved trauma in your life that is causeing pauses in your development as a being. when it shows them to you, you need ONLY feel the emotions as they arrive. no need to alter or react, just allow the deluge to come, and feel. thats it. some call this “soul retreival”. you call it what you wish.

    Reply

    • Posted by chris on 07/10/2009 at 1:02 am

      Yes, be grateful for the wonderful healing properties of the flora around us. And be thankful… not to the plant but to the Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ. Inviting and bowing down to any spirit other than the Holy Spirit will get you some very UNholy spirits, masquerading as benevolent. Satan, your mortal enemy, is the father of lies, meaning he is the progenitor of deception, and is very very good at it. And that’s why the “plant spirit” you refer to prefers the dark room rather than the light, for the Light is Jesus Christ, and evil thrives in darkness. Go toward the Light, dear one.

      Reply

  16. Posted by Pedant on 04/23/2009 at 2:55 pm

    Dude, you used the verb “to be” in your title. :P

    Reply

  17. you had me at shit!! awesome, indepth post.

    Reply

  18. Posted by R L Weaver on 10/09/2010 at 6:32 am

    Could I reprint some of this info about how you used plantian for your toe?
    Thanks

    Reply

    • Posted by Rix on 10/10/2010 at 6:59 am

      Everything on this blog (unless otherwise noted) is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License. That means you can use it for any non-commercial purpose as long as you give me credit for my work and license any work derived from my work in a similar “copy left” manner.

      Reply

      • Posted by R L Weaver on 10/18/2010 at 8:51 am

        I would really like to include your story about your toe – not the rest of the blog, in my upcoming book, “Backyard Pharmacy. If you would consider allowing me to do this I would give you the credit for the story and send you a book when it is finished if I had an address to send it too.
        This book will be a companion to the book, “Be Your Own Doctor” that I published in May.
        It is my goal to raise public awareness about the things around us that work so well as opposed to the “drug culture” that we have grown up in.
        I am requesting permission to use your story and pictures for clarity.
        Thanks for your consideration,
        Rachel Weaver
        aka Dr. Mom

  19. Posted by Lee Pridmore on 10/13/2011 at 2:37 pm

    Rix, I really reading your account of your twin experiences with Plaintain. Out of curiosity….Once you have the oil infusion, can you then mix some of it with bee’s wax to create a bodied salve? Thanks and All Good Medicine, Lee

    Reply

  20. Posted by Rix on 11/05/2011 at 6:09 pm

    Lee,

    I have tried mixing the oil infusion with thickening agents like beeswax. My initial experiments with beeswax didn’t go well for me, mainly because I felt afraid to use too much beeswax. Those early failures prompted me to mix it with petroleum jelly (half and half) which worked really well as a remedy for diaper rash on my son.

    Lately I thickened a small jar of plantain oil for a friend using quite a bit more beeswax than I had originally experimented with, and it turned out quite well. My new method consists of melting enough beeswax to constitute about 1/4th or 1/5th of the full volume (ie, 1 part beeswax to 3 or 4 parts oil infusion).

    I melted the beeswax in the container that would house the final product (in this case, a baby food jar) by sealing the hunk of wax in the jar and setting it in a bowl of water just off the boil. You can use a double boiler if you have one. I didn’t at the time, so I heated the water in a large, pyrex measuring bowl in my microwave and then set the baby food jar with the beeswax in the hot water. I made sure that the water level in the bowl did not come above the bottom of the jar lid, and I weighed down the jar to keep it from floating in the bowl.

    Once the beeswax had melted, I poured in the oil infusion. You could pre-heat the oil if you want to keep the beeswax from solidifying on contact with the oil. I did not, so I had to heat the oil and beeswax mixture again in order to get the final product to homogenize.

    In Susun Weed’s book Healing Wise, she recommends heating one ounce (30 ml) of oil infusion and adding one tablespoon (15 ml) of grated beeswax, stirring until the wax melts.

    FYI: I had trouble finding a chunk of beeswax to work with at my local organic health food store, so I bought a beeswax candle from there and used it. If you have a knife or grater that you can dedicate as a beeswax tool, I would recommend it because beeswax doesn’t like to come off of metal.

    Reply

  21. Posted by kim on 04/26/2012 at 10:48 pm

    to make the plantain oil can i use olive oil? and ive seen a recipe for it where they heat them together on the stove..which way is best?thanks!

    Reply

    • Posted by Rix on 04/30/2012 at 8:30 am

      kim,

      Definitely use olive oil. When I first tried my experiment with infused oils, I just used what I had on-hand in my kitchen. As bearmedicinewoman stated in her reply above:

      If you use olive oil, use high quality extra virgin olive oil for best results. Coconut oil, sesame oil, almond oil are also good alternatives.

      As for whether to use a slow-cold infusion over a hot-fast infusion on the stove, I prefer slow infusion for maintaining as much of the plant properties as possible. But if you need the infusion fast, by all means, use the heated infusion method.

      Let me share bearmedicinewoman’s recipe for this, copied from REWILD.info’s forum. You can use this method with olive oil, you can even use it with lard. Bearmedicinewoman recommends bear lard for heated oil infusions:

      the slow infusion process involves roughly chopping up your plantain and adding it to already melted lard (in a proportion [by weight] of about 1:2). Now, the ways I’ve learned from native folks involve just throwing the lard and plant matter into a frying pan and heating til the plant matter is crispy. I don’t think it’s optimal to expose the plants to that much heat, so I put it all in a double boiler and simmer on very low heat for several hours (from three to twelve or so) or until the lard has taken on the smell and/or color of the plant, then strain and bottle. The plants will have become a bit crispy by then anyway but they shouldn’t be be brown, or smell like fast food. If you’re doing this with a plant where you want to retain the delicate scent of volatile oils, then you’ll want to do your heating with a lid on your double boiler (otherwise it doesn’t matter, and actually helps the moisture to evaporate).

      I also recommend the heated infusion method for plants with high moisture content that would not work well in a slow infusion (because the moisture produces mold) like jewelweed.

      Happy experimenting, kim. Feel free to reply back with your results.

      Reply

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