The Outdoor Pharmacy, Part 1: Plantain

In our age of “modern medicine,” we have come to expect that most every health problem we have should be treated with a pill, procedure, or surgery.  Not only is this very expensive, but it seems that every few weeks another “miracle drug” is recalled and lawsuits pile up when it turns out to be more dangerous than marvelous.

Top View: Common Plantain

As a culture, Americans seem to have forgotten the healing power of the many plants God provided for our use.  Contrast that with the natural remedies that the native people regularly used only a hundred or so years ago.  Why have we abandoned it?

I have become increasingly interested in the healing properties of common plants and learning how to identify them.  I want to begin with an omnipresent one that is almost surely in your yard.

The Ubiquitous Plantain

Plantain can be found on every continent but Antarctica in some form.  In North America, it is usually found in 2 types- common and narrow-leaf.

Side view: Common Plantain

The common variety has very broad round leaves with parallel ribs running to the leaf tips.  From the center of the plant, a seed stalk about as tall as the plant is wide will grow up, covered in tiny green (then brown) seeds.  The pattern of growth is called a rosette since it has petal-shaped leaves in a round shape.  The flowers are small and inconspicuous so you may never notice them.  It is one of the most common yard “weeds.”

The second variation does not resemble its cousin very closely in my mind, but is nearly as common.  Narrow-leaf plantain has long slender leaves and an even longer flower stalk.  The flower head is odd.  It has a brown central section about 3/4 inch long with a dozen or so tiny flowers that ring the middle of it.  This stalk may be twice as tall as the leaves are wide.  As children, we used to wrap the lower end of the stem around the middle and rapidly slide it up to the top causing the flower head to pop off and hit unsuspecting people.

Uses Of Plantain

Top View: Narrow-Leaf Plantain

Despite their different appearances, they are used in much the same way.  The Illustrated Guide to Edible Wild Plants put out by the Dept of the Army lists all top parts (except stems- they are not mentioned) as edible and give the following medicinal uses:  to relieve pain from wounds and sores, wash and soak the entire plants for a short time and apply to injured area.  For diarrhea, drink a tea made from 1 oz of leaves boiled in a half liter of water.  For constipation, eat seeds and seed husks.

The Peterson Field Guide adds that the leaf tea can be used for coughs and scientists have confirmed “bronchodilation.”  It also helps to relieve bronchitis and inflamed mucous membranes.  Apply leaves to blisters, sores, ulcers, swelling, and insect stings.  It is confirmed antibiotic and anti-inflammatory.  The seeds may lower cholesterol.

Side view: Narrow-Leaf Plantain

“Wildman” Steve Brill’s Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in the Wild goes so far as to claim that putting plantain juice from freshly bruised leaves will probably prevent a poison ivy rash after exposure.  He says that Metamucil’s fiber comes from a European species of plantain (it’s the psyllium portion).  He also states that the bulk in the seeds helps control appetite, and reduces intestinal absorption of fat and bile, in addition to being soothing to the intestine.

A Personal Experience

Recently, I was stung by a wasp while getting the mail.  By the time I got back up to the house, my finger was burning.  I immediately crushed a plaintain leaf (by crumpling it and sticking my fingernails into it over and over)  and wadded it up on top of the sting.  I held it in place with a band-aid and the relief was nearly instantaneous.  When the leaf seemed to dry out, I repeated with another one.  No welt formed where the sting was and the pain disappeared.

It’s a great salad item also, but only in early spring, before it gets too fibrous.  I can attest that our geese think it is fine eating and went for that first every day when we moved them to fresh pasture.

Wow!  What a plant!

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12 Comments on “The Outdoor Pharmacy, Part 1: Plantain”

  1. Rev. Laura Says:

    Hey there! Plantain is good for wasp stings as you found out… 🙂 its good for all manner of bites and stings not just wasps. Dried plantain may also be used if you can’t find the live plant, just simply boil a bit of the dried plant material (1 tsp to 1 cup of water) for 10 minutes (this is called a decotion) and then apply the plant material to the wound and you may drink the water to help tamp down the histamines within the body or use as a wash (this water can be saved btw and frozen for future use or preserved with a dash of alcohol if no freezer is available).


    • Joe Says:

      Thanks Rev. Laura! That’s great to know.

      It’s an amazing plant. It’s probably at least as effective, if not more effective, than anything found over the counter. And it’s abundantly free (at least in our little slice of creation).


  2. Bets Says:

    I never knew what this ‘weed’ was. Now I know and can add it to my list.
    Also, for blisters, an old European woman told me to go put the membrane of a raw egg on it. It worked like a plaster and healed it right up. Go ahead and pile it on, goo and all,but don’t use the ‘air bubble’ part of the membrane. That piece didn’t work well and just wastes time trying.


    • Laura Says:

      That is fascinating about the egg membrane! Thanks for sharing that tip!

      I burned my arm on the edge of the upper rack in the oven way back in December and I still have a scar. I will keep that in mind. Yet another reason to have chickens! 😀



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