There's a Czech proverb usually ascribed to various alcoholic beverages that claims “Where it flows it heals.” I can’t vouch for the truth of this statement with regards to Moravian wine, South Bohemian beer or even highland herbal liquor.
But there is one substance of near miraculous topical healing power that I can vouch for (and if you own a small plot of grass it is very likely that you’re already growing it whether you want to or not). That is the humble plantain herb.
To avoid confusion, be advised that this herb is in no way related to anything resembling a banana. Fried plantain bananas are delicious and reasonably good for you, but this kind of plantain is something completely different. If you don’t know it already, it’s likely that you often mistake it for a odd sort of grass.
Medicinal plantain is a plant with long thin leaves. It can be best identified by the deep, stiff ridges that run the length of the leaves. Otherwise the leaves are shaped like long blades. There is a broad-leaf variety with the same ridges but it’s medicinal potency isn’t as strong.
Narrow-leaf plantain, which grows in yards and other places where brush is cut back in a wide variety of climates, is such a staple of the herbalists cupboard that it is the first herb I would teach children to actively use. It is best used fresh and is essentially nature’s band aid.
Here’s how to use it for the most basic first aid.
Please note that even small scrapes heal faster if you can wash and disinfect them. But you can’t always do this right away. Pull out any stingers if the problem is a bee sting. If near home, I’d opt for a baking soda and water paste first to suck out any accessible venom and then a plantain poultice. But if you’re out on a hike and don’t have anything with you, plantain is your best friend.
- If you have a scratch, scrape, small cut, insect bite or sting while outdoors, look around for some plantain.
- Chew or mash a leaf or two of plantain with a little water or saliva.
- This is called a poultice. Pack it generously over the affected spot.
- If possible secure with a band aid. But just rubbing it in and holding it on for a few minutes will suffice for most minor scrapes.
- Also wet a leaf of plantain and stick it to the skin as a temporary band aid. Children who know from experience that mashed plantain reduces pain willl be doubly soothed by having a plantain band aid.
The plantain will not only lesson the immediate pain significantly, it will also cause the wound to heal much faster than it would on it’s own.
This is the primary property of plantain. It assists the regeneration of cells. It isn’t particularly disinfectant and lacks antibiotic properties, so it is good to combine it with something disinfectant for any significant wound. However, where plantain is strong—in healing tissue—it is very strong indeed.
Here are the easiest uses of plantain in the home medicine cabinet:
A. In salve for poorly healing wounds: Next week I will post my super quick and easy salve recipe for plantain and other herbs. I have seen plantain salve from this simple recipe do what prescription antibiotic and healing salves could not. In the village where I live I have run into now three people with skin cracks or badly healing sores on areas that are hard to keep absolutely clean and disinfected. Each of these people had already sought out medical advice from doctors and received multiple prescriptions for pharmaceutical ointments—without relief. Each of them found that the cracks or sores closed after a week of using simple plantain salve. Keep in mind that these were cracks and sores from injury, not eczema or an allergic skin condition or a wound requiring antibiotics. But they were serious enough to cause significant pain and they were problems that standard pharmaceutical ointments didn’t heal well. These are the types of wounds where plantain is most helpful.
B. As a base for general skin care salves and washes: If I have enough plantain from the harvest I try to include at least some plantain with most of my general purpose salves, because of its amazing healing power. It is also great to have some dried plantain around to make an infusion to add to bath water for general skin care. It is so healing and soothing to whatever part of the body it touches that your skin will thank you and some conditions that require quick healing before an irritant or infection can set in may clear themselves up, even if the plantain doesn’t address their underlying allergenic or microbial basis.
C. In syrup or tea for stomach troubles, sore throats and coughs: It is good to remember that Czech proverb I mentioned in relation to plantain. Wherever it flows, it heals. Whatever it can physically touch, it will heal. Plantain hasn’t shown much ability to address systemic problems but it's great for the relief of symptoms because of its ability to immediately sooth irritated tissue and promote cell growth and regeneration. Certain types of stomach problems resulting from ulcers or irritation of the walls of the stomach may be helped by drinking strong plantain tea or syrup. Bronchial coughs where the irritation is primarily in upper air passages can be soothed and sore throats will benefit from plantain tea and syrup. Plantain can also be added to teas used for urinary tract infections and kidney stones. Again, plantain won’t solve the root problems of these ailments alone but it can mitigate the pain involved.
D. As food: Plantain leaves are an excellent source of iron as well as calcium, magnesium and vitamins A, C and K--far better than most garden greens. The taste of young plantain leaves is mild when chopped in a salad. Fresh plantain leaves have many of the same benefits as tea and syrup, so they can be added to food both for the nutritional benefits and to help with symptoms. There is no specific limit on how much plantain a person should consume, but as with all herbs, moderation is a good idea.
E. Vitamin B supplements: The unremarkable, brown flowers and seed heads of plantain are so high in vitamin B that they can practically be considered a vitamin supplement in and of themselves. Pick them and put them on salads to keep anemia and other health troubles at bay.
I must always end with the warnings, if for no other reason than to let you know what the current research says. Plantain is among the mildest herbs and it is safe for almost everyone. However, there are rare plantain allergies and people who are allergic to melons may have some reaction to plantain as well. Beyond that plantain hasn’t been studied enough when it comes to use in pregnancy, so responsible sources will generally warn off pregnant and breastfeeding women on general principle.
I add one other warning specifically for plantain because of where it grows rather than because of the plant itself. Please be aware that many grassy areas are sprayed with extremely toxic chemicals. While you can find plantain in great abundance in many parks and other lawns, keep in mind that unless you know for certain that an area of mowed grass is NOT sprayed with pesticides, the chances are very good that it is. Choose your harvest locations with care.
And as with all herbs and medicines, keep in mind that I’m not a doctor and this doesn’t constitute medical advice. While there is a lot you can do for yourself, it is always a good idea to seek out medical help with any significant injury or illness.