The following article appeared in the May, 2014 issue of Natural Herbal Living Magazine.
Plantain Herbal Monograph
Common name: Plantain
Latin names: Plantago major, Plantago lanceolata
Other Names: Wild plantain, ribwort, white man’s footprint, Englishman’s foot, snake weed, lamb’s tongue, boo-boo plant, Band-Aid plant
Leaves: Astringent, demulcent, tonic, nutritive, hypoglycemic, anti-inflammatory, refrigerant, diuretic, anti-catarrhal, expectorant, respiratory tonic, anti-spasmodic, hemostatic, anti-bacterial, anti-lithic, anti-viral, anti- bacterial, cytotoxic, anti-fungal
Seeds: Demulcent, spermatogenic, digestive, laxative Topically: Vulnerary, hemostatic, anti-septic, anti-ulcer, anti-inflammatory
One of our oldest and most useful “invasive alien” plants, plantain came to the Americas on the soles of European shoes and planted itself throughout the continent, where Native Americans quickly discovered its many medicinal qualities. It is the first medicinal plant many people learn to recognize.
Plantain grows on lawns and sidewalks, in gardens, and in open fields. A strong astringent, it is able to draw up nutrients from the soil beneath the sidewalk. Plantain grows in a basal rosette; the leaves are at ground-level, and grow in the round. The prominent, near-parallel veins in the leaves earned it the name “ribwort.” Plantago major has broad, round leaves that taper to a narrow tip. Plantago lanceolata, also called lamb’s tongue, has long, narrow, lance-shaped (or tongue-shaped) leaves. The leaves may be entire, slightly wavy, or gently toothed. The dense, green flower spike grows upright, upwards of four inches tall. Grown throughout much of the world, on all continents, it has gained a reputation as a reliable herbal remedy wherever it grows.
The word plantain is traditionally pronounced “plant-in”, as attested in Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen, I, ii: “These poore slight sores / neede not a Plantin.” In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare has Romeo recommend Plantain to Benvolio:
Romeo: “Your plantain leaf is excellent for that.”
Benvolio: “For what, I pray thee?”
Romeo: “For your broken shin.”
The scansion tells us that this, also, is pronounced “plant-in.” “Plan-tane” is another acceptable pronunciation.
Plantain has one of the broadest swathes of use of any plant, but if we think of it in terms of the Traditional Chinese Medicine category of metal, it will be easier to make sense of at least some of its uses. TCM associates the metal element with the lung and large intestine energetic systems, as well as with the skin. In western terms, plantain strengthens the mucous membranes, which abound in both the respiratory and the gastrointestinal tracts.
I like to think of plantain as the skin’s best friend, although calendula may share that title. Applied topically, it is an amazing wound vulnerary with the power to stop bleeding and heal bruises, including puncture wounds; bug bites; bee, wasp, and nettle stings; boils; ulcers; panaritium; and mastitis. When treating cuts and other open wounds, plantain not only stops the bleeding but also prevents infection, both by removing muck and as an anti- septic. It draws out the poison from snake bites, rabid animal bites, insect bites, and insect and nettle stings. The same drawing action allows it to remove splinters of all sizes and shapes. Plantain is also used internally to treat poisoning, including amanita poisoning (Perez-Silva and Herrera, 1992). Plantain salves treat pain and itches generally.
As a lung ally, Plantain helps in the treatment of coughs and catarrh, asthma, bronchitis, pleurisy, tuberculosis, and whooping cough. It provides symptomatic relief from the common cold. The tincture and the infusion are both effective, and may be used as a gargle as well as taken internally.
As a large intestine and stomach ally, plantain treats gastritis, enteritis, and both stomach and intestinal ulcers. It acts as an anti-spasmodic for the gastrointestinal tract, increases gastric secretions, and counters diarrhea and dysentery.
To help the teeth, gargle with the infusion or chew a leaf, scrunch it up into a wad, and use it as a temporary filling.
In addition, plantain treats gall stones, kidney stones, bladder infections, and urinary tract infections.
Plantain leaf infusion also serves as an eye wash for eye soreness and conjunctivitis. The roots can treat adrenal problems.
Traditional Russian uses of plantain also include treatment for insomnia, irritability, and emotional distress. In homeopathy it is used for depression and insomnia related to nicotine addiction.
In recent years, scientists have been studying the effects of plantain on cancer cells. A 2003 study published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine found that “hot water extracts of P. major and P. asiatica possess a broadspectrum of anti-leukemia, anti-carcinoma, and antiviral activities, as well as activities which modulate cell-mediated immunity.”
A different study published in the same year in Journal of Ethnopharmacology reported similar results.
Plantain seeds from Plantago psyllium are the main ingredient in Metamucil, and the seeds in Plantago major and P. lanceolata also function as a mucilaginous bulk laxative. Many people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome find this useful, but might do better to use the leaf preparations as well as the seeds. Plantain seeds are also a good source of essential fatty acids and zinc, and also help to increase the sperm count, although apparently without increasing testosterone. In Russia, leaf tincture is also used for treating impotence, and the seeds are used for female infertility as well as male.
Finally, plantain leaves also count as a wild edible. It’s not my favorite salad green, as I’m not fond of the sensation of my tongue being dredged; remember that drawing action that lets it remove splinters and take the venom out of bites? Still, a small number of baby plantain leaves, surrounded by other ingredients, make a reasonable, vitamin-rich addition to any salad. High in calcium, beta carotene, vitamin C, and especially vitamin K, plantain supplies nutritional “umph” and helps to stimulate the production of gastric juice, which makes it easier to digest the salad and anything else you choose to munch on.
There are no contraindications for topical use, unless you happen to have a contact-allergy to plantain.
Avoid internal use during pregnancy, and if you have polycythemia, thrombosis, excess clotting factor, or excess gastric secretions. Do not use in combination with Coumadin, Heparin, or other anti-clotting agents.
Some people with melon allergies are also allergic to plantain.
This article is reprinted from the May, 2014 issue of Natural Herbal Living Magazine.