Family: Plantaginaceae, or Plantain
Synonyms and Common names: Broad Leaf Plantain, White Man’s Foot, Englishman’s foot, asparagus, fleawort, ribwort, common plantain, palmetto, hoary plantain, weed,
Description and Habitat: A very common herb, found almost anywhere. Greater Plantain got the name White or English Mans Foot from the early settlers in the US, where ever they settled or travelled, Plantain used to thrive.
It can be found in fields, lawns, roadsides, waste ground, parks and disturbed ground. It is a very hardy plant and can usually be found in any environment where there is soil.
Greater Plantains leaves are broad, oval-shaped and grow in a rosette, sometimes with very fine, sparse, white hairs. The parallel veins are very distinctive in the plantain family and run from the bottom of the leaf to the top without visibly branching. If the leaf is carefully torn, pulling the top of the leaf away from the bottom, the veins can be revealed still attached looking like tiny strings.
The leaves grow in a rosette with no true stem but the flower stem is tall, thin and covered in flowers or seeds. Its many flowers are tiny and green to yellow/white, growing on a tall thin flower spike. Each plant can produce thousands of seeds.
Parts used: Leaves and seeds.
Collection and preparation: The leaves are best harvested in the spring and early summer before the flowers reach full bloom. At a pinch though, plantain leaf can be harvested anytime you find it growing- plantain’s near-constant availability is a huge part of its appeal and herbal personality!
The seeds are easiest to harvest in late summer or autumn when they have dried and can be easily stripped from the stalk. It is also possible to pick the stalks earlier in the summer, dry them whole, and then remove the seeds when they are needed. Dry the herb as quickly as possible as it does tend to go yellow if left too long, and its constituents lose their potency if this happens.
Actions: vulnerary, expectorant, diuretic, demulcent, astringent, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, alterative, hepatoprotective, and haemostatic.
Constituents: Glycosides, including aucubin, mucilage, chlorogenic acid and ursolic acid, salicylic acid.
Indications and Therapeutics: Both the Greater Plantin and its close relative Ribwort Plantain have valuable healing properties. It acts as a gentle expectorant whilst also soothing inflamed and sore membranes making it ideal for coughs and mild bronchitis.
Its astringency aids in diahrrea, haemorrhoids, and also in cystitis where there is bleeding.
Plantain is also very useful when combined with other herbs, for making ointment or cream for the skin, for just about any kind of rash, irritation, bite, sting, or wound, it has the ability to stop itching from insect bite almost immediately.
Contraindications: Plantain is generally considered a safe, edible plant. However, people who take blood thinners or are prone to excessive blood clotting should avoid ingesting plantain. Plantain may affect the absorption of medications through the gut, notably lithium and the heart medicine digoxin. It is safest to avoid plantain while taking these medicines.
Preparation and dosage:
Infusion: 2 teaspoonfuls of the dried leaf, and pour over a cup of boiling water. Leave to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes, drink 3 times daily.
Ointment: An ointment can be made that will aid the treatment of haemorrhoids, cuts, wounds, bites and stings.
Tincture: 2-3 mls of tincture 3 times daily.
Additional comments and Folklore: Plantain grows native across wide swaths Europe and Asia, and has an ancient tradition of medicinal use in these regions.
In feudal Russia, when travel was a rare and dangerous endeavour, serfs regarded this readily-available food and medicine as God’s gift to travellers. While journeying, they sewed plantain seeds and recited prayers in order to bring good luck.
Plantain even appears, under the name “Wegbrade,” or Waybread, in the Lacgunga, a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon herbal anthology. Plantain is one of the herbs called for in the Lacgunga’s Nine Herb Charm, herbal preparation and accompanying spell designed to protect against the wind-born toxins that Anglo-Saxons held responsible for the spread of disease. The charm says of plantain:
And you, Waybread, 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?
Even in the 10th century, plantain was known for its rare ability to withstand repeated trampling!
Plantain’s tenacity and ability to thrive in disturbed soil allowed it to spread rapidly in colonized lands. When European settlers brought the plant to the Americas, indigenous people supposedly nicknamed it “white man’s foot”. Plantain has naturalized in Australia as well.