Today we’re talking about one of my favorite yarbs, plantain, that’s the herb, not the fruit. To this day, after all my research, I still don’t know why the herb and the fruit are both called “plantain,” the fruit is in the genus Musa, not Plantago, so no connection there. Even in Spanish it’s plantano. This is a mystery to me, so if there are herbalists out there who have an answer please let me know.
I use two different species of plantain, Plantago major (Fig. 1), also known as “broadleaf plantain” and Plantago lanceolata (Fig. 2), also known as “ribwort plantain”. To my knowledge most of the species in the Plantago genus have all or at least some of the healing properties of P. major and P. lanceolata, these are just the two that grow around me.
It’s considered a weed to most people these days. To the English colonists it was a miracle plant used both as a food source and as medicine. The tinder leaves grow all year round, even into the winter, and are full of vitamins (namely beta carotene, calcium, vitamin C, and vitamin K) and minerals that would have been essential to people’s diets. Because it followed the colonists it was named “White Man’s Foot” by many of the indigenous peoples of the East Coast. ThePlantago genus isn’t native to the Americas, but it was brought from Europe where it’s been used for centuries. The plant was called “wegbrade” or “waybread” in Anglo Saxon because the dried seedpods could be powdered then made into fiber-rich bread. It’s mentioned in the Anglo Saxon “Nine Herbs Charm” (from the “Lacnunga” manuscript, pictured below) as one of the most important plants to the Saxon peoples:
“And you, Plantain, mother of herbs,
Open from the east, mighty inside.
Over you chariots creaked, over you queens rode,
Over you brides cried out, over you bulls snorted.
You withstood all of them, you dashed against them.
May you likewise withstand poison and infection
And the loathsome foe roving through the land.”
Every part of the plant can be used. The leaves are great in poultices and can be used to help treat bug bites, inflammations, rashes, cuts, bruises, stings, and other skin complaints. Pliny the Elder mentions plantain when he says that put “…in a pot where many pieces of flesh are boiling, it will sodden them together.” The foliage can also be used in tisanes for colds, fever, upper respiratory complaints, rheumatism, hypertension, regulating blood sugar, bladder problems, kidney problems, and a whole lot of other issues. The root is also used and is very effective as a gentle expectorant and in helping sinus issues. The plant was also often called “Snake Weed” because of the belief that the plant can help draw venom out of a snakebite. It was also thought that a person could carry the plant to help ward off snakes.
I hesitate to call plantain a “wonder plant” or a “cure-all” but at the very least there are a lot of effective uses for the plant that should be noted. The effectiveness of this medicine coupled with its wide availability makes plantain more than just a weed, it’s a readily available medicine for those who need it. Personally I don’t work with plants, I work with spirits that just happen to be in plant form. For me the chemical makeup of a yarb is just as important as the folklore and tradition surrounding the plant. For the Saxons and other ancient Germanic tribes “waybread” was a sacred plant, the “wyrta modor” or “mother of plants” as we’re told in the “Nine Herbs Charm”. I try and hold this association with the plant today. She is a gentle but powerful healer who deserves respect. We walk over her, we mow over her, we cut her down, poison her, and pull her up, and yet she conquers still.