Family: Plantaginaceae, the Plantain Family
Description: Non-native 1-50cm tall herb. Small, dirty-white flowers in dense spikes usually 5-30cm long, leaves basal with long petioles and stringy, almost parallel veins.
Abundance: Occasional on Mt. Desert Island, grows like a weed in most lawns
Habitat: Roadsides, lawns, sunny waste areas
Plant Parts Used: Leaves, flowers, seeds
Food: Tea, cooked vegetable, salad
Medicine: Stings, bites, deodorant, cuts, fiber, demulcent, hemorrhoids, coughs, draws foreign materials and toxins out of the body
Also called “white man’s footprint” because it started growing in North America wherever European settlers went, plantain is a plant that has colonized, so to speak, almost every lawn in New England. Plantain became widespread so quickly that it has incorporated itself into many Native American uses. Ray uses fresh plantain leaves and flower heads for food. He roasts or sautés the flower heads and adds the leaves to salads in the early spring or incorporates the leaves into teas for its bitter properties. When the tall flower spikes have gone to seed, plantain is sometimes called “nature’s Metamucil.” These seeds are a fiber-rich addition to any meal, especially breakfast cereal, or soaked and briefly cooked as a side dish. Terry-Anya actually planted plantain in her garden due to its usefulness as an antibiotic, tea, and for treating insect bites and stings. She even has heard of plantain leaves being wiped under the arms as a deodorant.
Ray also makes spit poultices for treating bee stings, probably plantain’s most common use. I remember first hearing this from the late teacher Frank Cook, who taught an ethnobotany seminar I took in 2008. He said that plantain is his favorite plant for exposing herbal medicine to children. When spending any time with children in the summer in New England, it is quite likely that at least one of them will get stung by a bee. Frank said that if such a painful experience happens, especially at a picnic, it is likely that plantain grows nearby. On multiple occasions, Frank had picked a leaf, asked the child to chew it up into a poultice, and applied it to their sting. He told us that the best part was watching the child react to the immediate diminishing pain. Sue’s family keeps bees and whenever her grandkids visit they always help with the beekeeping tasks. Her grandkids know to chew up plantain and put it on their stings when helping with the honey collecting. These children even tell their friends about how to do it and prefer plantain to the creams sold for bee stings when given the choice. Sue told me that it is a natural response for the children to run for a plantain leaf whenever they get stung.
Terry-Anya commended plantain’s unique ability to draw toxins from bites, stings, and infection and to draw out foreign bodies, such as splinters or shards of glass. She said that a nurse once described to her the remarkable effectiveness that multiple plantain poultices had at drawing deeply embedded gravel from the face and scalp of a man who had been thrown from his motorcycle. The emergency room staff had been able to deal with his other injuries, but only plantain could pull out the gravel. Deb also makes plantain into an all-purpose salve. She, too, described the common use of a plantain poultice to act as a drawing agent for insect and spider bites and stings. She told me the story of a carpenter whose arms got covered in wasp stings; he kept replacing a poultice of the leaves after the plaster turned black and he recovered quickly
Another use of plantain I have heard of is for closing wounds. I once worked with a man who got a deep puncture wound who tried applying a plantain salve to the wound after he returned from the hospital. The problem here was that plantain was so effective that his wound started closing before his body had a chance to expel the infection. He had to reopen the wound so that he could disinfect it better.
Deb harvests the “big, moist, green leaves” in early summer and makes a fresh oil or glycerin tincture out of them, which she described as better than a pure alcohol tincture because the glycerin helps draw out the demulcent qualities better. She told me that plantain leaf tea or glycerin is wonderful to combine with elder flower tea or tincture for clearing congested Eustachian tubes. She recommended using this combination 3-5 times per day until Eustachian tubes are clear. She said plantain’s demulcent qualities also help soothe dry, irritated coughs. For women who get itchy vaginal tissue, they can apply plantain oil or a poultice to relieve those symptoms. Plantain and witch hazel together are effective for treating hemorrhoids. The cooling and detoxifying leaves also make a great spring tonic tea.
Plantain leaf poultices are common for treating a variety of external ailments. The Abnaki would apply this poultice as an analgesic for body pain or for rheumatism and swelling. The Algonquin used this poultice as a burn dressing and for wounds. The Cherokee applied this poultice for headaches, burns, blisters, ulcers, stings, and snakebites. The Delaware and Ontario Native Americans used it for bruises. The Meskwaki and Mohegan also used the leaves for burns, bruises, and swellings The Nuu-chah-nulth used the poultice for drawing out pus from a variety of external sores and wounds. The Iroquois also applied the poultice to sores. The Kwakwaka’wakw applied it to blisters on sores and swellings. These are just a few of the many Native American tribes that have numerous records of using mashed plantain leaves for common ailments.
Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.
- Hayes, Terry-Anya. Personal interview. 27 Oct. 2010.
- Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
- Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
- Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2009. Print.
- Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
- Soule, Deb. Personal interview. 4 Feb. 2011.
- Szwed, Sue. Personal interview. 12 Nov. 2010.