The common name “plantain” refers mainly to two species: Plantain major and Plantain lanceolata, which can be used, for the most part, interchangeably.
Despite its many attributes, plantain is a humble and discreet weed, very common in urban settings as it can thrive in disturbed areas and hard packed soils with lots of foot traffic. Its flowers are thin and fury and its leaves often hug the ground, or grow tall to blend in with the surrounding grass.
Native Americans called it “White man’s footprint” because it sprouted wherever European settlers had spent any amount of time. Once it became established, it was given a name which translates as “life medicine,” demonstrating its value as a healing herb.
Common plantains seem particularly adept at plucking particulate pollution right from the air in the roadside environments they tend to inhabit, making them an example of phytoremediators.
Medicinal weed - a little bit of history
Greek physician and pharmacologist Dioscorides, whose work De materia medica was the foremost classical source of modern botanical terminology, included plantain for its wound healing and anti-infective properties.
It has been used in skincare for centuries. Nicholas Culpeper, english herbalist and botanist, described plantain as being “profitable against any inflammations and breakings out of the skin, and against burnings and scaldings by fire and water.”
The plant was also part of the “Nine Herbs Charm”, an ancient English potion intended for treatment of poisonings and infections.
Plantain contains biologically active compounds such as polysaccharides, allantoin, several minerals, caffeic acid derivatives, flavonoids, iridoid glycosides and terpenoids. Plantain is a good source of antioxidants like vitamin C and carotenoids, as well as vitamin K. It has also astringent properties related to the presence of tannins, as well as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties from caffeic acid and flavonoids.
Plantain is known to help soothe inflammation, infections, or injuries of the skin, lungs, urinary, and digestive systems. It can be a great ally for those who wish to quit smoking, better to be consumed as a tea or tincture to help clean the lungs and curb the desire to smoke.
Plantain may also be used to soothe and cool the pain, itching, or burning symptoms of poison ivy, nettles, or sunburn. A preparation of a poultice for direct topical application for itchings, burns, scrapes, cuts,etc can be very easy to make (the herbs are crushed into a pulp or made into a paste that is spread directly onto the surface of the skin).
You can also eat the tasteful young leaves and flowers in a salad, add them to a soup or cook them like spinach.