By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society
Plantain. Let’s be clear. Not the banana. We’re talking about Lantago major, also called broadleaf plantain, white man’s foot, ribble grass, way bread, great rat’s tail or greater plantain. It is, in fact, related to the banana, as a species of perennial flowering plant in the plantain family. It is also related to hosta, also known as plantain lily, which it somewhat resembles.
Still not a banana. This herb is a leaf vegetable rich in calcium and vitamins A,C and K. The leaves are produced in a flat, broad oval rosette. The flowers are many, tiny, greenish in color, and held aloft above the leaves by a tall, single spire of a stem. Those flowers produce tens of thousands of seeds per plant, which are dispersed by the wind.
Once its job is done, that tall stem has historically been dried, twisted, and braided into useful objects, such as twine, baskets, and mats.
Plantain’s name, white man’s foot, came from the observation by indigenous people that it followed European expansion, having been introduced from Europe. Plantain thrives in disturbed soil, appearing trodden into the wasteland by intrusive feet.
The leaves have been ingested as a tea or tincture as the mucilage from its crushed leaves soothes inflamed membranes. Young leaves are tender and something like spinach. More mature leaves might be better stewed.
Used for healing where ever it is found, it has been applied externally as a poultice and is valued for its anti-microbial, astringent, and regenerative qualities. There are strong traditions that a poultice of plantain is particularly valuable in drawing out venom from the bites of snakes and spiders and the stings of bees and wasps. Perhaps.
One of the customary ways to prepare that poultice is to chew the leaves into a paste, and apply that to the wound. Here, I recall the time my darling daughter offered a baby finger to the parrot, Merlin. Merlin bit. Amazon parrots have beaks like bolt cutters, so we were lucky that her finger was wounded, but intact. Our pediatrician ordered a round of antibiotics, not because parrot bites are particularly likely to become infected, but because any toddler is going to stick the injured finger in her own mouth, making the injury, in effect, a human bite. And a human bite ALWAYS gets infected. That said I would advise against the traditional method of preparing a plantain poultice. Others who have long and deep herbal knowledge may disagree with me. Perhaps its best to follow the always-reliable, historic herbalist Hildegard of Bingen and simply apply the juice of the leaf.
Hildegard also suggests ingesting the leaves, with or without water, as a remedy when one has been given a love potion. Which is, I suppose, something like having been bitten by a venomous creature…. but worse. Of course, she recommends following up with a great quantity of strong drink. That should help.
Plantain is probably growing at the edges of your yard, or between the cracks in the sidewalk. People may spray pesticide to banish plantain from their lawn or garden, but wind-dispersed seeds by the thousands per plant are a solid survival strategy for the plant. If you harvest your own plantain, be aware whether the area has been treated with chemicals or in a pet area. You can buy the dried leaves from Amazon and herbal suppliers.