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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Plantain: The Medicine Plant - by Rebecca Veenstra

I was watching a lawn company service the neighbor's yard the other day and I started thinking about all the plants in the so called "lawn". That got me remembering a funny story I heard once from an old timer about his neighbor. Apparently the man's neighbor had been neglecting cutting his grass and the city was sending him citations.

Instead of paying the fines, the gentleman invited the city authority to his house to walk through the yard with him. At each plant (aka: noxious weed), the man's neighbor paused and explained that this particular plant was good for this or that malady. This went on for some time with the city official astounded that all the weeds had such varied uses and benefits. As they neared the edge of the man's yard the official pointed to a small stout plant with straight, thin leaves and asked. "What is this one?"

The neighbor quickly replied. "Oh that? That’s grass... I have no idea what that would be good for."

How funny it is that we as a society spend so much time deeming one plant or another a weed. Many times we might just be surprised at what capabilities these plants may have.

One prime example is Plantain. The Latin, or botanical name, is Plantago major. The parts used are the herb, root and, seed. This plant self-sows, meaning that it creates and distributes its own seed in order to propagate.

Historically plantain is not native to the North American continent. It was brought here by the settlers. The plant adapted quickly to the ecosystem here and now, is fairly common.

One of the old folk names for plantain is "white man's foot"-- referring to the manner in which the plant was spread in the trouser cuffs, wagon wheels and horse's hooves of traveling pioneers. However, once plantain became established in North America, one Native American nation gave it a name which translates as “life medicine” --demonstrating its value as a healing herb. Plantain was also known as "Soldier’s Herb" as it was carried by soldiers to treat wounds on the battlefield.

In an untreated lawn, it would not be unusual to find several plantain plants. In an urban environment plantain will cling to crevices in the side walk and grow along the sides of buildings. It is an extremely resilient plant.

I have a friend who tells me her Grandmother referred to plantain as the "medicine plant". When she first told me this I thought that was rather vague and all-encompassing. After studying the plant... I would have to agree with her. There are many maladies and symptoms that plantain has been reported to alleviate.

Skin eruptions and irritations would be one of the first and most prevalent uses for plantain. One of the most direct ways to apply the herb to the skin is to attach a leaf to an insect bite with a bandage or bandana. Macerating the plant leaf will make it moister and easier to absorb. Many pioneer stories refer to people chewing the leaf and then applying it to stings, burns, snake bites, and abrasions. 

Salves and oils containing plantain are commonly used by natural health practitioners to heal skin. A preliminary trial found that topical use of a plantain ointment (10% ground plantain in a base of petroleum jelly) was helpful as part of the treatment of people with impetigo disorders. (1) Plantain is approved by the German Commission E as topical use for skin inflammations. The fresh leaves can be applied directly three or four times per day to minor injuries, dermatitis, and insect stings. (2) Plantain is often combined with other soothing herbs like calendula and lavender to aid in skin healing.

One particularly healing herb that combines very well with plantain is Cannabis. Cannabis has a vast library of anecdotal information reputing its benefits for skin irritations and diseases. Many people report feeling relief and even healing from the topical application of cannabis preparations. One study done in Italy concludes that "cannabis could act as a primary treatment for epidermal ailments." (3)

So, if you have now wandered out into your yard to take a look for a plantain plant... I'm betting you found one.

If you are game to try harvesting a bit for experimentation you won't need any tools. Just snap a few leaves off with your fingers, being careful not to uproot the plant. Leave the majority of the plant intact and it will continue to grow for you until the end of the season.

Now that you have a few leaves in your basket or paper bag, you have several choices as to what you could do with them. You could rinse them off, nibble on them as is... or prepare them as greens. Many people enjoy the leaves in a nice salad too. The larger leaves can be bitter. It is best to pick the inner small leaves for eating fresh.

If you are thinking forget the salad... how do I make something for this awful rash?

Have no worries, in a matter of a few days you can make yourself a soothing plantain oil right in your own kitchen. What you need to accomplish in order to prepare an ointment is to extract the medicine from the leaves.

The old fashioned method would be to pack a jar with herbs and oil to set in the window for a few weeks. Since we live in the modern age though, we have several options to hurry that process along.

The basic idea is to infuse the herb into a preparation you would want to use via direct low heat. Sweet oil (olive oil) or Safflower oil are very good choices. Any oil will work, just pay attention to the scorching temperature. Some oils burn faster than others.

There are many fancy methods to use but one of the simplest methods is slow infusion with a crock pot or yogurt maker. The new induction cookers work marvellously for this process as well.

The amount of herb you have will determine the amount of oil and manner of heating best for your situation. A common ratio for herbal infusions is two ounces of herb to six ounces of oil. This ratio is really just a guideline. Benign herbs, like Cannabis and Plantain, do not require such strict measurements as herbs that have side effects and drug interactions.

In order to prepare a nice cannabis/plantain oil a good recipe could be:

- One ounce of dried cannabis leaf/trimmings/buds
- One ounce of dried plantain leaf/root
- Three ounces of Safflower oil (Safflower oil is
        reputed to sometimes relieve psoriasis symptoms)
- Three ounces of Sweet oil (olive oil)

Once again, you could use more or less of any of the above ingredients.

Combine your herbs and oils in a slow cooker, induction pan, or yogurt maker. Then, infuse at a low temperature (110-120 degrees is ideal) for several hours, even days if you have the time.

A good rule of thumb for a beginner is two days. If you have difficulty controlling the temperature of your mixture though-- you may have to strain it earlier. Over-heating an herb preparation will likely destroy the beneficial properties.

To strain the oil a metal mesh strainer is often one of the best methods. Cheesecloth will absorb a good deal of your oil resulting in less for you to use. Strain the oil into a clean jar or bowl. Then discard the herbs.

Usually, straining several times is necessary. Your oil will spoil if remnants of plant matter remain. Make sure it is crystal clear and void of any contaminants before you put it up to store.

If you find the oil messy, it is simple to create a salve with your herbal oils. This is a pretty easy process. You just heat one ounce of your oil slowly over low heat.  Get it hot enough to melt two teaspoons of beeswax into it. Then pour it into a container and cool. When it is fully cooled, you will have a lovely salve. So, Granny calls it the "medicine plant." The Native American's call it "life medicine." And you are wondering-- what else can it do besides heal the skin?

Plantain can be made into a tea as well. Many studies have found that it can be beneficial to people with lung conditions. It is considered a soothing herb that has been shown to help people with chronic bronchitis. Plantain is approved by the German Commission E for internal use to ease coughs and mucous membrane irritation associated with upper respiratory tract infections.  The German Commission E recommends using 1/4–1/2 teaspoon (1–3 grams) of the leaf daily in the form of tea made by steeping the herb in 1 cup (250 ml) of hot water for 10–15 minutes (making three cups (750 ml ) per day). (4)

Plantain is considered a cooling demulcent. That means that overall it has a cooling effect on the body's tissues. The word demulcent means that the plant produces mucilage which is a big word for slippery. The plant will produce a slippery type of substance when it is wet. That slippery substance can be extremely soothing to irritated inflamed tissues.

Plantain is a demulcent that has been documented in two preliminary trials conducted in Bulgaria to help people with chronic bronchitis. (5) Other demulcents traditionally used for people with bronchitis include mullein, marshmallow, and slippery elm. Because demulcents can provoke production of more mucus in the lungs, they tend to be used more often in people with dry coughs

Plantain has historically been used for symptoms like hemorrhoids and urinary tract infections. Some herbalists have written of its benefits for people with stomach issues like ulcers. Of course, using plantain for serious issues like that would require the intervention of a professional. It's never good to self-diagnose internal symptoms. It is always best to ask a doctor first.

The seeds of the plantain plant contain psyllium--which you have probably heard of before. Over the counter fiber supplements are mostly psyllium fiber. So, in theory, if you were to collect enough plantain seeds you might use it as a substitute for the store version.

One of the niftiest things I learned while studying plantain is that it can offset the craving for nicotine. The old school remedy says to chew a few plantain leaves when the urge hits.

Plantain is not associated with any common side effects and is thought to be safe for children. (6) There is no information available about its use by pregnant or nursing women, though topical application appears to be safe.

There are no well-known supplement or food interactions with this herb. It is possible that unknown interactions exist. If you take medication, always discuss the potential risks and benefits of adding a new supplement with your doctor or pharmacist.

Needless to say, sometimes things aren't what they seem. Next time you are out walking around take a look down and see if you don't just run across a plantain in your travels. If you do, pay it some respect for all the fabulous healing capabilities it has. Most of all-- hold back on the round up-- there is no such thing as a noxious weed.

Rebecca Veenstra
Chartered Herbalist
New World Seeds, Traverse City MI


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