I just spoke with a friend of mine who lives in Texas and is the mother of a young boy. She told me that she had just taken her son to the doctor for several very infected spider bites and was prescribed strong antibiotics. I gave her some unsolicited advice that I believe every parent should know. It is a particular remedy for those scary spider bites, itchy mosquito bites, terrible bee stings, infected wounds, painful splinters, and the key to prevent doctor visits for antibiotics for any of the aforementioned. It is simply a weed. A weed that grows underfoot. A weed that invades your lawn. A weed that has been used for thousands of years all over the world. And a weed that was called “mother of herbs” by the Anglo-Saxons.
My advice to my friend was to use Plantain. She then asked “Well how do I use it and how can I get it?” Wonderful question! This is how:
First and foremost before we use any plant for any reason is to safely and correctly identify it. Plantain is not the tropical fruit but rather a perennial weed that is found throughout the world with more than 200 species in the Plantago genus. One species you may know well is Psyllium Seed Husks for troubles with digestion. Same genus!
The species I am most interested in are Plantago major and Plantago lanceolata simply because those are the two species that grow in my lawn. Plantago major or Common Plantain have oval shaped leaves while Plantago lanceolata has spear shaped leaves. Both species grow in a basal rosette and have veins that run parallel or like train tracks from leaf stem to leaf edge. As mentioned before Plantain loves to take over lawns, and you will most likely find them in disturbed fields, along road sides, along the sidewalk as you walk to work, and where soil has been disturbed or packed. Here is a picture of a huge Common Plantain found at Armitage Park last month.
Now, once correctly identified, how do you use it? Plantain is well known for it’s drawing capabilities. Once I had a splinter deep in my finger and I worked on that sucker for a good 10 minutes to no avail. I came across some Plantain and picked a nice, clean, healthy leaf, stuck it in my mouth and chewed it to a pulp. I spit it out onto my finger and held it there for 3 minutes. After I removed the pulp I squeezed my finger and out popped the splinter!
It’s no magic trick (though sometimes it is nice to give a little mystery to kids) it’s chemistry. Plantain is very astringent and this quality makes for good pulling (things out including infection), stopping (such as bleeding), and closing (tissue together from a wound).
No matter what kind of camp or program I am teaching Plantain always finds a way to teach a lesson to kids. This summer we are teaching an array of summer camps for kids and one topic that always comes up are bee stings. Plantain can pull out the venom from a bee sting, reduce the swelling, kill any bad bacteria that may have been present, and can reduce the risk of major allergic reaction. Yes please!
The best way to apply Plantain is the method I described above for my splinter. Chewing it like gum can get the medicine working internally as well as externally. Now if you are a bit squeamish about chewing up a plant you can always squish it between your fingers really well or between rocks. This method is called a poultice. Depending upon the severity of the wound you may need only one application or ten.
A story I will leave you with is one I enjoy telling when I am introducing Plantain. One day I was working with a bunch of adults making bow drill kits for friction fire. Before I sat down in the gravel I decided to walk by a patch of grass and took notice of a couple Plantain plants. Then I started my grueling task of making a bowdrill kit from scratch. After a couple of hours in the sun I was getting hot, tired, and cranky. My knife slipped and I saw a rather deep cut slice just above my knuckle on my left pointer finger. Without hesitation I got up walked to the patch of grass, found a Plantain leaf, chewed her up and slapped her on. I applied pressure and held up my hand for three to four minutes. When I felt that the blood had clotted I removed the pulp and found the cleanest cut I had ever seen. The Plantain had completely stopped the bleeding and cleaned up the blood and I could already tell that the tissue was trying to stitch itself back together. It barely scarred, just enough to be able to show it off.
When in need Plantain will magically appear. Please be sensible about harvesting plants for first aid. Know your plants well before applications and be aware of your limitations. Once you build a relationship with Plantain she will be one of your most important allies!
Tom Brown’s Field Guide Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants Tom Brown Jr.
Botany in a Day Thomas J. Elpel
Just Weeds Pamela Jones
Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast Pojar and Mackinnon