Different from the delicious, banana-like treat that you find in many Central American dishes, the Plantain we are talking about here is actually a short, leafy perennial that is considered a weed by many. Good for the digestive system and incredibly healing for our skin, every part of Plantain is useful medicinally. Its Latin name is Plantago spp, meaning that there are many Plantago varieties including Plantago (P.) ovata, P. psyllium, P. major, P. indica and P. lanceolata. This plant belongs to the Plantaginaceae family.
Plantain grows all over, from lawns to meadows to stream sides. It is a hairless perennial with oval leaves that grow in basal rosettes with bluntly pointed tips. The flowers grow in small spikes that are densely elongated.
If harvesting the seeds, it is best to do so when they are fully ripe in late summer and early autumn. The leaves and aerial parts can be gathered throughout the summer and it is recommended that you dry the herb quickly. I like to hang mine on a piece of twine in a cool, dark room. And as always, make sure you are ethically harvesting your herbs from a clean location free from toxins and that you have permission from both the landowner and the plants before proceeding.
A Naturalized Model for Immigrants
While it is not native to North America, Plantago spp has been naturalized here and in many places across the world. In the poetic and inspiring book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, she points out that Plantain is a great model for how non-Native individuals can foster more harmony and respect, rather than extraction, in the ways we show up in the world.
Many Native peoples refer to Plantago spp as “White Man’s Footstep” because it came with the first settlers and spread wherever they went. Its taxonomical name Plantago even references the sole of the foot. However, it did not cause harm or damage like many of the beings it came with. Instead, this being made itself useful on the new land. It doesn't take up much space, makes a delicious spring green and supports healing in a multiplicity of ways.
Kimmerer highlights that there are many "immigrant plant teachers” that show us how not to be welcome on a new continent. Many invasive species push out their Native neighbors, extract all the water from the Earth, and destroy landscapes in their drive to expand.
Plantain is very different. According to Kimmerer, “its strategy was to be useful, to fit into small places, to coexist with others around the dooryard, to heal wounds…This wise and generous plant, faithfully following the people, became an honored member of the plant community. It’s a foreigner, an immigrant, but after five hundred years of living as a good neighbor, people forget that kind of thing.”
Plants are some of our greatest teachers, and Plantain is a beautiful model for how to live in symbiosis with the land on which we find ourselves.
How can we live in ways that honor and respect the water, Earth and air that builds our bodies and spirits? How can we be in relationship with the more-than-human world in a way that fosters abundance for generations to come, rather than rushes us towards mass waves of extinction? Look to Plantago and you may find some answers.
Plantago Herbal Actions
Increases Immune Activity
Uses for Plantain
As I mentioned earlier, every part of this plant is useful for a variety of medicinal needs, making it an incredibly resourceful “weed.” Even the fact that it’s considered a weed makes it valuable, as it grows in abundance. Rather than harvesting plants that are endangered, many herbalists gravitate towards weeds so that we can continue to harvest and interact with these plants for generations to come.
Psyllium (Plantain seeds) are an incredible support for digestive issues of many kinds, particularly for constipation, diarrhea, and IBS. It is useful for Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s disease, stomach ulcers, indigestion, and is commonly used to treat dysentery in India. The seeds are also good for hemorrhoids, as they soften stools and reduce vein irritation. The leaves of the plant are also quite supportive for digestive issues, generally having a cooling, moistening and soothing effect.
The uses for Plantain’s seeds don’t stop there, though, as they are also a great diuretic and urinary demulcent, making them helpful for Urethritis. They can also lower cholesterol, blood fat and glucose levels, making them particularly helpful for people with Diabetes. The seeds are also incredible at removing toxins from the body, as their mucilaginous qualities help absorb toxins in the large intestines to reduce autotoxicity.
The leaves and aerial parts of the plant make a superb poultice to be applied topically for pain, cuts, infections, swelling, sores, wounds, blisters, rashes, snake and insect bites. Plantain is actually considered a “puller,” meaning it ramps up your immune cells and will help pull foreign objects such as splinters, stingers and infections out of your body. Pretty magical if you ask me. The leaves stop bleeding and are anti-inflammatory, helping to soothe sore and inflamed membranes. It can even help with Eczema and Psoriasis, because it’s so supportive of our skin while helping to heal our gut internally.
As a gentle expectorant, Plantago can be helpful for coughs, mild Bronchitis and Asthma. Plantain makes a great eyewash as well, and generally treats inflammatory issues of all kinds in the body. The root can be used for many similar purposes, particularly for supporting fevers, respiratory issues, and constipation.
How to Prepare Plantain
Plantain is a delightful tea, mix 2 teaspoons of the herb in 8 ounces of boiling water and let steep for 10-15 minutes.
In Artemisia Academy's Herbal Apprentice Program, we also learn how to make an excellent Scrapes and Stings Salve. Here's the recipe:
1/4 oz Yarrow (here's a blog post if you'd like to know more about this herb)
1/4 oz Calendula
1/4 oz Plantain
1/4 oz Comfrey
1/2-1 cup of olive oil
1/2-1 ounce (1-2 tbsp) shredded beeswax
Fill quart jar no more than 3/4 full.
OPTIONAL: "Fog" herbs by lightly dampening with alcohol (this processes the alcohol-extractable constituents).
Cover with olive oil until herbs are submerged by at least 1 inch. Pour into a double boiler.
Heat on low for 3-6 hours until herbs have extracted all color and scents. Herbs will look spent when ready. (You can alternatively make a cold oil infusion by leaving the herbs to macerate in a cool, dry place for 2-4 weeks and shaking regularly).
Let cool and strain.
Add 1 oz shredded beeswax for every cup of oil, heat to 100-140 degrees and let beeswax dissolve.
Test batch consistency by cooling a spoonful in the freezer. If too thin, add more beeswax. If too thick, add more olive oil.
When done, pour salve into oil tins and let cool open for 30-40 minutes.
Uses for Scrapes and Stings Salve:
Rashes and Itchy Skin
Herbal Apprentice Program
If you want to learn more incredible herbal remedies and the magic of plants, Artemisia Academy's Herbal Apprentice Program may be perfect for you. This 150-hour program is hands-on, interactive, and will give you the skills and knowledge you need to form deep and healing relationships with the herbal allies all around us.
The information I shared in this post comes from my own relationship with Plantain, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Artemisia Academy’s classes, Michael Tierra's Planetary Herbology, A Peterson Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs, Michael Moore's Western Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, and Andrew Chevallier’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine.
About the Author
Alicia Cielle Heiser is an Astrologer, Herbalist and student at Artemisia Academy. Her work centers on facilitating a greater understanding of the cyclical nature of the world and the ways that we as humans fit within the greater whole. She is writing a series of materia medica blog posts for Artemisia to make the wisdom and knowledge of herbal medicine more available to more people. Alicia also offers herbal astrology readings and you can find her at www.aliciacielle.com.
Disclaimer: Information presented on this webpage is for educational purposes only, and does not include the diagnosis and treatment of disease nor replace the advice of a licensed physician. Please refer to a licensed health professional for any illness or persistent symptoms before using herbal remedies.
Herbs can sometimes cause discomfort or side effects, and may interact adversely with pharmaceutical medications. Do not use herbs internally without the approval of a doctor or medical professional if you are currently on medications or have a history of medical conditions.