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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Plantain, The Mother of Herbs

Romeo: Your plantain-leaf is excellent for that.
Benvolio: For what, I pray thee/
Romeo: For your broken (cut) shin

Plantain has a long history, even mentioned by Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Everyone has an opinion on what makes a plant worth its existence or nothing more than a weed. This is what can separate a gardener from an herbalist. Granted, plantain certainly isn't the most attractive plant and doesn't have scented, showy flowers.  To many it is nothing more than a space hog in the lawn with its basal rosette form, later to shoot forth the long flower head tassels that inevitably just bend from the mower blades and pop right back up again. My mother still refers to it as the tassel weed, never bothering to remember the correct name. But to someone interested in medicinal or culinary plants, the return of the perennial plantain in early spring is met with a warm greeting.

Plantain is one of the most medicinally powerful plants, nuisance or not. They grow in lawns, meadows, waste places and even cement walk nooks and crannies. Part of their thriving success comes from the fibrous root system that can dind the smallest traces of moisture and nutrients in the poorest of soils. They are so common most people just step on them without a second thought.


Common Plantain

Though there are over two hundred species of plantain throughout the world, the two most common types in the U.S. are P. major L. or common plantain (broad-leaved) and Plantago lanceolata L or ribwort (narrow-leaved). The generic name comes from the word planta, which is Latin for "sole." The introduction of plantain to North America goes back to the 1700's with the arrival of the first European settlers. The Indians, first seeing it near European settlements, called it "white man's footprint."

The Plantago species are not related to the banana family plantains or the water plantains (Alisma species) which have similar leaves but are inedible. Plantain is one of the early spring edible greens. Each leaf has a long, fibrous leafstalk, so is best eaten raw when the leaves are young and small. English plantain is seen first in early spring and common plantain comes up a little later. Either one gets tough by mid-spring and by then it is best eaten as part of soup stock.

Internally, plantain provides beta carotene, calcium and a carbohydrate fiber called mucilage.
This fiber helps prevent heart disease in that it reduces both the L.D.L (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and triglycerides.
As an aid for healthy digestion, plantain can help with digestive problems related to antibiotics and food allergies. The plant is very soothing and reduces inflammation in the gut lining. The seeds act similar to psyllium husks by absorbing toxins, firming stools and as a gentle laxative to clean out the digestive tract.
This soothing action also makes the plant useful for respiratory problems. Since it is rich in the mineral silica, plantain makes an excellent expectorant. This means it eliminates mucus and soothes inflamed, sore membranes such as with a sore throat, congestion and nagging coughs.

Known as the "mother of herbs", there seems to be very few health conditions that plantain can't be of an aide. According to the American Materia Medica, most blood diseases, many glandular diseases, digestive issues, female disorders, skin problems and even arthritis can be helped with the healing properties of this undervalued plant.

Externally, being an astringent with antimicrobial properties, plantain is excellent for wounds, bug bites, bee stings and rashes. Should you be stung by a bee, bothered by other biting bugs, or gotten into poison ivy, look around and you'll probably find plantain growing somewhere nearby. Make a poultice by picking a few leaves and chewing them into a mash and then placing the wad on the wound. If necessary you can then cover it with a band-aid or strip of cloth to hold it in place. Very impressive is how quickly the pain from the sting is neutralized and diminishes.
A plantain poultice can also be used for drawing out splinters or thorns.

By infusing the leaves, flower stems and seeds in a good carrier oil such as olive oil, it can become a very useful salve for use as a wound healer, skin soother and in general, an excellent balm to keep on hand. The balm below has multiple uses for all age groups. Bug bites, rashes, sore baby bottoms, elderly skin care, wound care, chapped hands and lips, the list goes on for a very versatile healing salve.

Plantain Healing Balm/Salve
Plantain Violet Lip Balm

By infusing the leaves, flower stems and seeds in a good quality apple cider vinegar, it can become a safe, deet-free insect repellent safe for all ages and even your pets.

Plantain and Lavender Vinegar Deet free Bug deterrent
Plantain, Comfrey, Yarrow Herbal Vinegar Deet Free Bug Spray
Vinegar Infusion of bug repelling herbs