Continuing with our weed walk, this week is plantain…the plant, not the banana-like thing that shares the same name.
There are actually over 200 species in the genus Plantago, but there are two I’d like to cover that are most common in the areas that I’ve seen, Plantago major and Plantago lanceolata.
Broadleaf plantain, common plantain, greater plantain, and white man’s foot are just a few of the names attributed to this plant. Right about now, the leaves are about 4 inches long, but can get up to 6 inches. As you can see in the picture, they are shiny and very green, and have 5 parallel veins running from bottom to top. They grow I a rosette formation (all the leaves coming from a central point) and will send up a tall flower stalk in late spring which is packed with tiny, almost imperceptible flowers from bottom to top.
Some of the common names for this species are narrowleaf plantain, ribwort plantain, narrowleaf plantain, English plantain, or ribleaf. Like the broadleaf, this also grows in a rosette, but as you can see from the picture (and one of the names) the leaves are much narrower and can be much longer, up to 10 inches long. The leaves are a little darker and slightly thicker than the broadleaf as well, but still have the 5 parallel veins running along them. The flowers, which also appear in late spring/early summer grow up on a stalk. As a child, my friends and I would pick the flowers with their stalks, wrap the stalk around itself near the flower head, and pop them off at each other!
Update! Plantago virginica
So I took a break and noticed this, what I thought was a plantain lookalike. But lo and behold, it’s another species I’d never seen before!
From what I’ve found, this species is commonly referred to as Virginia plantain, dwarf plantain, southern plantain, hoary* plantain, white man’s little foot, or paleseed Indianwheat. At this point it is about the same size as the other two species listed above, but apparently it doesn’t get much bigger, with leaf length topping out at only 6 inches. Even that length is apparently rare, with most plants only reaching 3 to 4 inches. I suppose that’s where the “dwarf plantain” comes in.
*”hoary” usually refers to plants that are fuzzy or hairy.
Where to find them
Go outside! Speaking to these three species, they seem to like disturbed areas. They have a taproot and grow in a wide, low-lying rosette, so that tells me that, like the dandelion, they are where they are to help loosen hard-packed ground and retain some moisture on the surface. The taproot goes deep, finding water and nutrients. The taproot is tough, so breaks up any packed dirt around it like a drill. And, much to the lawn-lover’s dismay, the taproot is regenerative, meaning if it breaks while trying to pull it out (why?!) a whole new plant will grow in its place.
I find them in the cracks:
and around the edges:
and in the lawn:
but usually the ones in the lawn are in an area that is thin and/or unhealthy. Hence the need for soil repair, and the appearance of weeds there.
Apparently the names ‘white man’s foot’ and ‘white man’s little foot’ come from the Native Americans who noticed that wherever the white man went, these plants were sure to follow. Plantain was such a treasured herb that it was among the plants that the first Europeans brought over with them to the New World, thus spreading them here.
As far as I can find, all plantain species are edible. Like most of the weed plants, the leaves are used as a pot herb, cooked as you would any other greens, used as a spinach replacement, or the young leaves eaten raw in a salad.
I find the broadleaf and narrow leaf plantain stringy, although pleasant tasting, so I generally long-cook them in a pot of mixed greens, chopped well, to help break down that rib string.
Ease the stings
The thing we use them for most is bug bites and stings. My daughter and I are very sensitive to mosquito bites, and of course, they seem to love us even more for it! We swell, we itch, we get hot, red welts, and it lasts for weeks left unchecked. Plantain can fix that. If you get a bug bite or bee sting, simply crush up a leaf or two and rub the juice on the bite for immediate itch relief. For swellings, like those from a bee sting, I find that a poultice of the fresh leaves cools and calms the area rapidly. Mash a few leaves until they form a sort of paste, and spread it on the affected area. Alternatively, and somewhat easier, a spit-poultice can be made by simply chewing on a few leaves, and again applying it to the affected area.
Since discovering the incredibly fast acting relief plantain brings, whenever my daughter or I are out when or where we know there will be mosquitos, biting flies, or no-see-ums around to bother us, we do a quick survey for plantain so we can find it again when we need it!
Relieve the rash, nourish the skin
For larger or more long-term skin issues, plantain oil can be a welcome relief. The emollient qualities not only provide soothing relief to rashes, dry or chapped skin, acne, cuts, and other irritations, the antibacterial qualities help speed healing. Plantain is also gentle enough to use on babies for diaper rash.
Pick enough of the fresh plantain leaves (of any species) to fill a jar.
Lay out the leaves to wilt overnight, or outside in the warm sun for at least a few hours**.
Pack the semi-dry leaves in the jar, then fill the jar with your oil of choice. I like sweet almond oil, but any other natural oil you have handy would work just as well. I imagine coconut oil would add some extra oomf to the healing, antibacterial qualities, but I’m not sure how it infuses if allowed to solidify…
Tightly lid the jar and store in a cool, dry place for 4-6 weeks. Give it a good shake whenever you think about it.
Strain out the plant material and the remaining oil should be nice dark green color.
Quick, heat-infused oil:
Pick the fresh plantain leaves (of any species).
Put the leaves in a pot (crockpot works great for this) and just cover with your oil of choice. (coconut oil would work out better here, as it would stay liquid for the infusion)
Heat the oil on very low heat, or the warm setting on your crock pot, for 4-6 hours.
Strain out the plant material and the remaining oil should be a nice dark green color.
What to do with the oil?
Once you have the oil, you can use it as-is on any ailments, as a moisturizer for dry or chapped hands or feet, or on your face, or as a massage oil. Plantain has mild antispasmodic properties (loosens tense muscles) and the oil makes a nice massage oil for achy feet or tired legs.
You can use the oil to make a salve, either alone or combined with other herbal oils. I make small tins of plantain salve for the kids and carry one with me almost always for any minor bites or cuts or irritations when fresh plants aren’t available. A salve is less messy, and easier to carry around as there is less chance of spillage or leaking. I use beeswax pastilles, mixed about half and half with my infused herbal oil (I’m not great with measurements or recipes), adding a little more of one or the other to get the consistency I want: more beeswax = harder salve, more oil = softer salve.
You can make a cream or lotion. I haven’t tried making any lotions or creams, as the water content and emulsification process, and the chance of spoilage all scare me a bit. But I have made whipped body butters before with other types of herbal oils, so the plantain oil could be substituted for any oil portion of your favorite lotion, cream, or body butter recipe. I haven’t had a reason to need a plantain cream, but I imagine it would be extra soothing to a wide-spread rash, or especially on a baby’s behind!
The season of mosquitos and other biting bugs is right around the corner. So go out now and find your plantain patch so you are ready! And in the meantime, maybe pick a few of the young leaves to add to a dish. Delish!