Plantain is just such a plant. A ubiquitous and sometimes troublesome resident of lawns, driveways, pastures, hillsides and roadways, common plantain (Plantago major) certainly lives up to its name. Its close relatives, P. lanceolata and P. psyllium, are nearly as widespread, and these three herbs have found a plethora of uses around the world.
Plantago leaves, loaded with healing allantoin, make excellent poultices for wounds, burns, bee stings, rashes and insect bites. A strongly-brewed plantain tea makes a wonderful hair rinse for people who have dandruff.
An infusion of the leaves, when taken internally, has soothing, expectorant properties that are helpful for bronchitis, sore throats, stomach upset, ulcers and heartburn. The tannins and alkaloids in plantain leaves lend them astringent and antimicrobial properties, useful for the treatment of diarrhea, cystitis, varicose veins and hemorrhoids.
All Plantago species are rich in mucilage – the leaves and seeds of P. psyllium may contain 30% mucilage by weight – making them effective bulk-forming agents. James Duke, Ph.D., author of “The Green Pharmacy,” cites an Italian study where plantain was used to help morbidly obese women lose weight. In addition to cutting back on calories, the study subjects took three grams of plantain in water 30 minutes prior to every meal. They lost more weight than a control group that simply reduced its caloric intake. Russian researchers have attributed the weight-loss effect of plantain to its mucilage and polyphenol content. (Metamucil, a commercially available preparation familiar to most people, is produced from P. psyllium seeds)
For gout sufferers who cannot immediately reach medical care, plantain may offer a good stopgap measure: The leaves contain aucubin, which reportedly speeds the excretion of uric acid via the kidneys. A cup of tea made from a handful of leaves in hot water and drunk every two to three hours will speed the elimination process. Plantain is mildly diuretic, as well, and this property is useful in situations where toxicity plays a role.
Plantain makes a decent potherb when it is steamed, briefly boiled or eaten fresh. Its leaves are reputedly rich in calcium. Remember that plantain is a good bulking agent, though, so a large salad made solely from its leaves may lead to some bloating; it’s best to combine the plantain with other greens.
This list of potential uses for plantain is undoubtedly incomplete. One fascinating aspect of herbalism is its breadth and novelty…an untrammeled, natural world is a place of endless permutations.
One man’s weed is another man’s medicine chest.