Nestled amongst the verdant grasses of our suburban lawns, crept up between the cracks and crevices of our concrete sidewalks, scattered beside photosynthesizing friends along forest edges, lives a powerful little plant known as Common Plantain. With its broad egg-shaped leaves and strong parallel veins, this herbaceous perennial appears to most people to be an unimpressive "weed". Yet to herbalists far and wide, Plantain is considered a medicinal gem that has traditionally been used to heal a variety of ailments.
Due to its high mucilage content, Plantain is an excellent remedy for intestinal irritations, hemorrhoids, and stomach ulcers. The soluble fibers of Plantain seeds help prevent cholesterol and lipid absorption, thus reducing risk of heart disease. When applied externally, the leaves heal and soothe bee stings, insect bites and poison ivy. Plantain can also be used as a mild laxative, a digestive aid, and an expectorant. Rich in Iron, Calcium, and Vitamins A, C, and K, the young leaves make a nutritious and tasty addition to soups and salads.
The powerful healing properties of Plantain first became remarkably apparent to me rather unexpectedly one day at wilderness camp several summers ago. One minute, my students and I were happily wandering through lush mossy forest in search of an ideal spot to build a debris shelter. The next minute, piercing screams coming from my 6 year-old companions echoed throughout the woods as they were relentlessly stung by the protective inhabitants of a wasps nest. Luckily, none of the children were allergic, and our whole group was able to get out of harm's way fairly quickly. We then retreated to a grassy open field to assess the situation. Recalling what one of my mentors had taught me about the medicinal uses of Plantain, I glanced at the ground in search of some quick relief for my ailing students. Lo and behold, the meadow was covered with this trusty forb, and I quickly (yet respectfully), snatched up a few leaves.
I guided my stung students to chew the leaves between their front teeth so as to let the plant’s healing juices flow. This green mushy “spit-poultice” was then applied to each students’ stings (one girl had gotten stung nine times!). Within minutes, the Plantain worked its magic and the pain from the stingers subsided. Our whole group then offered the Plantain some gratitude and happily carried on with the wild adventures that made up the rest of our day.
Although Plantain can easily be made into a “spit-poultice” if you happen to find yourself in a similar situation, it’s always nice to have a Plantain salve (a.k.a. ointment) handy for those occasions when you just don’t have immediate access to fresh plants. Here is one way you can harvest and use Plantain leaves (available in you own backyard!) to make an all-natural topical medicine:
Step 1- Harvest Plantain leaves and remove excess dirt (If you prefer, give the leaves a good rinse). Let the leaves wilt for at least 12 hours to remove the moisture (too much moisture will cause your infused oil to go rancid). Coarsely chop or tear the herb.
Step 2- Infuse the dried Plantain into a carrier oil (we like to use olive oil, jojoba, or almond). There are two different ways to make the infused oil:
Slow Folk Method: Place herbs into a jar and pour carrier oil over them, making sure to cover the herbs by at least 1” of oil and leaving at least 1/2” of space at the top of the jar so the herbs will have room to expand. Cover the jar with an airtight lid, and let it sit in a warm sunny window or on your countertop for 3-4 weeks. Give the jar a daily shake.
Quick Method: Place herbs in crock-pot or double boiler and cover them with your carrier oil of choice, leaving at least an inch or two of oil above the herbs. Warm the herbs and oil over low heat for 3 hours until the oil is very green.
Step 3- Strain the Plantain leaves from the infused oil using a cheesecloth. Give that cheesecloth a good squeeze so as to make sure you have gotten out every bit of oil!
Step 4- Time to make this medicinal oil into a salve! Weigh out 1 oz. of beeswax (approximately 2 Tbsp) and melt it in a pot or double boiler. Add 8 oz. of infused Plantain oil. Stir well over very low heat. Check for consistency by skimming a bit off the salve and letting it cool. If it’s too hard, add more oil. If it’s too soft, add more beeswax.
Step 5- Once the consistency of the mixture is right for you, remove it from heat and add a few drops of essential oil (we like to use lavender) and a couple drops of Vitamin E oil (to increase shelf-life).
Step 6- Pour the salve into a clean jar or tin and cover tightly. Use on stings, cuts, scrapes, bruises, burns, dry skin, and baby bottoms. For longevity, store in a cool dry place.
Those stinging insects are becoming real active again, so make sure you've got some Plantain Salve handy for when you're out tromping through the forest with your kiddos! It helps a variety of wilderness-related skin ailments!