As seen in Issue #002 of Home Herbalist Magazine
Images copyright Elaine Johnson MS, IAC
I actually cultivate some weeds, much to the dismay of my suburban neighbors. Plantago major is one such weed, a welcome member of my garden and an essential herb in my home apothecary. Many gardeners hate this prolific plant, and I think this is because its history as a valued healer has been forgotten. Plantain arrived in North America with early European immigrants, brought to the New World as a respected medicinal herb with an established record of use in the Old World. First Nations ancestors soon learned to use it, and the herb spread wherever people traveled.
This is a plant which grows almost anywhere; it is commonly seen flourishing in grassy lawns and sidewalk cracks. To identify Plantain, look for rosettes of dark green, smooth, oval leaves with five parallel veins radiating from a smooth, reddish-purple stem. Flowers and seeds are borne on 6-12” stiff, upright stalks. It is usually 4-8” tall and wide, but in summers with enough rain, Plantain can grow to resemble a small hosta, with leaves larger than the palm of my hand. By autumn, the plants become quite worn and ragged looking, having fed many insects through the growing season. However, now that it’s fall you will probably also find smaller new leaves ready for picking; this plant is good at self-seeding and will produce a successive generation in the same growing season.
Plantain is a hemostatic, vulnerary, and analgesic herb: it stops bleeding and helps tissues regenerate while easing the pain associated with injury. Plantain can be prepared as a tincture, tea, infused oil, salve, or poultice and each preparation has different purposes. I remember my grandfather making spit poultices with Plantain leaves to soothe my itchy mosquito bites when I was a child, and I still use this easy method for on-the-spot relief of bites, scrapes, and stings while hiking or working in the garden. Simply pick a leaf, chew it up and spit it onto the bite. When a friend’s 6-year-old spent the day with us last summer, she was a mosquito magnet, and I quickly turned to Plantain to ease the itch and relieve the inflammation of her many bites. The spit idea was “too gross!” for her, so I devised a poultice of Plantain leaf and Aloe Vera gel held in place with band-aids. This works excellent for splinters as well since Plantain is known for its ‘drawing’ action: softening the skin and reducing inflammation, allowing dirt and foreign bodies to surface more easily.
Plantain Poultice Method:
Coarsely chop 4-6 large freshly-picked Plantago major leaves and place in a blender. Add 3-4 tbsp. Aloe Vera gel. Pulse and scrape the blender sides until the Plantain leaves are blended and the mixture becomes a thick goo. Place a little on a bandage and apply to the mosquito bite or splinter. Reapply as needed. Store extra Plantain Poultice in a closed container in the refrigerator, where it will keep for up to a week. This mixture can also be frozen into ice cubes which work well to cool and soothe burns and stings.
My family’s favorite remedy for skin challenges is Plantain Salve. My partner and our son have a Neosporin allergy (as does 5% of the population), so Plantain Salve has been an excellent alternative for them. This is our go-to first aid treatment, a perfect remedy for everyday scrapes, bumps, bites, burns, rashes, and splinters. We’ve also used it to soothe our dog’s hot spots when he suffered from skin allergies, and it can be used for minor skin issues in cats if the salve is prepared without essential oils. I first learned to make this salve by warming a jar of chopped fresh plantain leaves and oil in a mini crockpot full of warm water for several hours, then straining and thickening the infused oil with beeswax. As I’ve become more experienced, my techniques have evolved, and I’m happy to pass along the tips and tricks I’ve learned that produce a higher-quality end product.
Plantain Salve Method:
Harvest fresh Plantago major leaves on a sunny day, being respectful of each plant by not picking more than 1/3 of its leaves. When harvesting, always pick fresh leaves from areas you know are not treated with pesticides. If you need to remove dirt, rinse the leaves and dry them with a towel. Chop the leaves coarsely, then spread them on a plate and let them wilt overnight. This will remove much of the moisture which causes mold and rancidity in infused oils and herbal salves. The next morning, place the chopped leaves in the top pan of a double boiler. Pour enough olive oil over the leaves to just cover them. Keep the lid off the pan to prevent condensation; remember, moisture = spoilage! Heat until the water in the lower pot comes to a boil and the oil feels warm, then turn off the heat but leave the pan on the burner. Repeat this gentle heating process several times a day for 3-4 days. I usually manage it in the morning while I make my tea, and in the evening after I come home from work. DO NOT boil the oil! The high heat destroys much of the medicinal value and will cause the leaves to burn and the oil to smell bad. When heated slowly using this manner, the oil will turn a lovely green with a fresh leafy aroma and the leaf pieces will have shriveled.
Whirl the oil mixture in the blender to further break up the cell walls and release all the medicinal properties of the herb, then strain the infused oil through a jelly bag into a clean jar and compost the plant material. Let the jar of oil sit on the counter for several hours and observe: if there is moisture in the oil, it will settle to the bottom of the jar as water droplets since water molecules are heavier than oil. If you see water droplets, carefully pour the oil into another clean jar, and discard the bit of oil containing the water droplets. Cover and label the jar with contents and date, and store at room temperature in a cool cabinet, or in the refrigerator or freezer for most extended shelf life. When using it from the freezer, check for water droplets again after the oil has thawed, then pour off as needed to ensure that no moisture condensed into your oil during the freezing and thawing process.
To turn Plantain infused oil into Plantain Salve, I add an approximate ½ oz. of beeswax for ½ cup of oil. I like to grate the beeswax into the oil for quick melting. Place the jar of oil and beeswax in a pan of water and warm it gently, stirring until the beeswax melts. Add a few drops of essential oil, such as lavender, if desired. For each ½ cup of oil, squeeze the contents of a 400 IU. capsule of vitamin E into the mixture as a preservative. Pour the liquid salve into containers and allow it to harden. Cap the containers and label them with contents, date prepared, and usage instructions; store in a cool cabinet. Your Plantain Salve should keep for a year or longer. Remember, this is a soft salve and will melt if placed in a hot location such as a closed car on a warm day!
As we move into the winter months, Plantain Salve also makes a great remedy for chapped lips, dry hands, and cracked heels. Indoor air in schools is especially dry during fall and winter, and a small tin of Plantain Salve tucked into your student’s backpack can save many trips to the nurse in search of relief for chapped lips and hands. When we take time to know the plants that live nearby, they both simplify and enrich our lives. I am so grateful for our relationship with the Plantain in our garden. Welcome some Plantain into your life while there’s still time this fall, and see how it helps you grow!
Grieve, M. A Modern Herbal, Vol. 2. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Silverman, Maida. A City Herbal. Woodstock, NY: Ash Tree Publishing, 1997.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997.
Elaine is a folk herbalist and wise woman located in Kansas City who believes in the healing power of our herbal allies. She is the owner/operator of Elaine’s Garden, where she works to help reclaim our magical relationship with the Plant Kingdom. She teaches classes, mentors students, runs a Community Supported Herbalism subscription program, donates organic produce to her local food pantry, supplies organic herbs and herbal products to Herbalists Without Borders, and continues to research and deepen her knowledge of the Plant Kingdom. Elaine mentored with Valerie Cooksley, RN, of the Institute for Integrative Aromatherapy and has studied with Patricia Kaminski and Richard Katz of the Flower Essence Society as well as herbalist Susun Weed through Wise Woman University. She also enjoys her non-magical job as a public school librarian.
Visit her website: http://www.elainesgardenllc.com