Today’s Spotlight is on a plant that is probably familiar to many, even if not exactly well-known. Plantain is possibly the most widely distributed medicinal plant in the world. Native to Europe and parts of Asia, it can now be found everywhere human beings have traveled. It’s not fussy about soils or growing conditions, and Native Americans often called it “white man’s footprint” since the plant seemed to follow the early settlers around as they began cultivating the soil.
I can remember playing with the cattail-like flower stalks as a child, but I only learned its name when I had bought my first house and was reading a book about weeds. Today, plantain is considered an invasive and noxious weed by some, and a must-have herb by others. Which sort of puts it in the same league as dandelions, violets, pokeweed and purslane, all of which are common here too.
Plantain has been growing in every place I have called home, including Happy Acres. We have an abundance of it here, at least the broadleaf variety I am most familiar with, Plantago major.
There is another form with narrow leaves that is also quite common, Plantago lanceolata. There’s a lot of it growing on the grounds around the Impact Community Garden, where I got the above and below photos.
Though attractive in their own way, neither of these types of plantain are likely going to win any awards as ornamental plants. And though the leaves are edible they are also tough when older and can have a mild laxative effect, so they’re not likely to wind up in many culinary creations either. Plantain is most useful for its medicinal qualities, and that is why we value it here at Happy Acres.
Plantain has antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antihistamine qualities that make it quite useful externally. A poultice can be made from the leaves and applied to insect bites, bee and wasp stings, and poison ivy rash. And if you’re out hiking or walking and get stung by a bee or bitten by a mosquito, you can pluck a leaf of plantain, crush it and apply it to the affected area for some relief. The leaves are also reportedly good for blisters and diaper rash. My wife and I like to make an infused oil from the dried leaves, then use the oil to make a salve. The salve is handy to have on hand when needed, especially in summer when insect bites and poison ivy seem to show up here regularly.
I’ll be back later and with more information on how we harvest and dry the plantain, then use it to make the infused oil. I hope you’ve enjoyed this Spotlight on a common and very useful plant.
UPDATE: To see how to make the infused oil, read Homemade: Plantain Infused Oil.
To see my other Saturday Spotlights, visit the Variety Spotlights page.