The Humble & Persistent Little Weed – Plantain

Plantago Major
Common Plantain - Plantago Major L.

Plantago Major L. - Greater/Common Plantain (Broad-leaf Plantain)

Plantain is generally considered to be a weed; one description even read ‘a short, fat, ugly weed!! But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

In actuality Plantain has a long history as one of the best healing herbs on the planet; and is probably the biggest masochist of the plant world – it loves to be trampled.

Identification &

Greater Plantain is a low to short perennial herb found on grassy, open waste & disturbed habitats such as trampled paths and tracks, field edges, roadsides, gardens, lawns and meadows.
It grows in a wide range of soils (except highly acidic soils) and ‘can produce a large and persistent seed bank’1

Whilst there are many, many plantains (all in the same family Plantaginaceae), it is the greater plantain (pictured above) and the Ribwort (Narrowleaf or English) Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) that have the most effective active ingredients.

Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

Whilst Greater Plantain has fat, oval shaped leaves, Ribwort has narrower lance shaped leaves. Both leaves have the characteristic parallel veins, more noticeable and raised on the underside of the leaf.

Ribwort Plantain (Left) - Greater Plantain (Right)

Classification

RankScientific Name and Common Name
KingdomPlantae – Plants
SubkingdomTracheobionta – Vascular plants
SuperdivisionSpermatophyta – Seed plants
DivisionMagnoliophyta – Flowering plants
ClassMagnoliopsida – Dicotyledons
SubclassAsteridae
OrderPlantaginales
FamilyPlantaginaceae – Plantain family
GenusPlantago L. – plantain
SpeciesPlantago major L. – common plantain

Both have flowers that mature from the bottom to the top, so the bottom can show brown, whilst the middle shows white and the top still developing. The left 3 images show male flowers, whilst the right 4 are female flowers.

Plantains leaves have been used for centuries all over the world as a remedy for healing wounds and treatment of a number of diseases related to the skin, respiratory organs, digestive organs, reproductive organs and circulatory system. You can use either the Greater Plantain of the Ribwort Plantain for these properties. However the Greater Plantain is also edible; use the tender young leaves in salads and the older larger leaves cooked (as you would spinach). All parts of the plant are edible including the seeds.

A range of biological activities has been found from plant extracts including wound healing activity, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antioxidant, weak antibiotic, immuno modulating and antiulcerogenic activity. Some of these effects may attribute to the use of this plant in folk medicine2.

Uses & Health Benefits of Plantain

Bites, Stings & Superficial Wounds

The antimicrobial (aucubin), anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties in Plantain allows it to not only soothe insect bites, stings and superficial wounds but also to prevent infection. Whilst the allantoin it contains helps skin tissue to regenerate & thus accelerates healing, its vitamin K helps to stem bleeding from cuts & grazes.

A few leaves of Plantain, crushed or pounded with a stone (or if treating yourself chewed) applied directly to bites, stings or stinging nettle exposure will immediately soothe the pain, reduce swelling and redness and draw out any poison. The same method will stop the bleeding from fresh cuts.

Mouth Ulcers, Throat Infection & Soreness

Gargle or swish Plantain tea (or a tbsp of Plantain tincture diluted in a cup of water) around the mouth, 3-4 times a day. For infection place 5-10 drops of tincture under the tongue and allow to absorb slowly. 

Respiratory Tract & Digestive System

The astringent properties of Plantain which hep to dry up excessive secretions are useful in treating colds and diarrhea.

The demulcent (relieves irritation of the mucous membranes by forming a protective film) properties found in the mucilage (gelatinous substance) of this plant help to moderate the astringency making this herbal remedy far gentler than other astringents.

Take as a tincture or drink as a tea.

Relieve gastrointestinal inflammation & improve liver/kidney function

Drink 1-2 glasses of Plantain tea per day. Helps to bring relief to people with stomach ulcers, IBS or other inflammatory diseases of the gastrointestinal tract.

Skin Problems, Acne, Boils or Dandruff & Scalp

Wash using a Plantain tea (for scalp leave on for 1 hour and then rinse). For Acne/boils use a drop of tincture or a salve afterwards.

A salve of Plantain is also excellent for skin rashes, chapped skin, insect, and spider bites, eczema and psoriasis-affected skin.

Sunburn/Minor Burns

Apply a poultice made from fresh crushed leaves immediatley (for minor burns wrap with whole leaves as a bandage). In both this can be followed by using a salve.

Plantain in Magic & Folklore

Plantain is another of the ancient Saxons ‘Nine Sacred Herbs’. It is believed that the ‘waybread’ (Wegbrade) in the Nine Herbs Charm is Plantain. Although this seems to have been due to its medicinal properties rather than its magical.

Plantain seed is often found in grain seeds and it is thought that this is how the herb spread across the world.  It was called “White man’s footprint” by Native Americans because it sprouted up wherever European settlers had spent any amount of time. The classic Latin name Plantago was formed from the Latin word ‘Planta‘ meaning the ‘sole of the foot’

It was also called “Soldier’s herb” due to its use as a field dressing.

In Devon it was often referred to as ‘Cuckoo Bread’ and it was believed that once, every seven years it changed into a cuckoo and flew away.

It was believed to be a protective plant being hung in the home for this purpose or carried to protect against the dangers of travel such as snake-bites. In Ireland it is associated with St. Patrick who is also associated with ‘averting snakes’.

Used since prehistoric times, it is referenced many times from the Anglo-Saxons to Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Cautions

Although there are no known cautions for this herb as with anything care should be taken as it possible to be allergic to any substance.

Legal Compliance

This information is shared for educational purposes only – it is not aimed to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any illness or disease whatsoever. Before trying this herb please consult your doctor especially if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.

Blog articles belonging to the ‘Hedgecraft’ category are part of our ‘Lore Keepers‘ project

(preserving the knowledge of the Old Ways for posterity)

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  1. Blamey and Grey-Wilson 2003, Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora 2012, Castroviejo et al. 2009.
  2. (Samuelsen 2000) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10904143 .

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