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.
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.
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.
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~