First Published on August 17, 2016 Written by Emily van Lidth de Jeude
This past May, my daughter had a big fall, goring her knee on a rotten branch. She endured not only a week of emergency room IV for the ensuing infection, but then three months of the wound slowly expelling all the remaining bits of rotten wood. Plantain to the rescue! Yes – seriously! What the salt water soaks didn’t pull out, we got out with plantain poultices. Grab a leaf, chew it up, and place it on the (closed) wound. You can even use one of the flat leaves as a bandage to hold it in place (tied with string).
Not to be confused with plantain bananas, the small green inconspicuous plants of the Plantago family are exceedingly common. Find them along the edges of roads, meadows, lawns, paths, and playgrounds. Most common around here are P. major (broad-leaved plantain) and P. lanceolata (narrow-leaved plantain or ribwort). Maybe when you were a child you learned to pluck a broad-leaved plantain and find the veins sticking out where you tore it off. Maybe you discovered that if you pulled those veins you could make the leaf curl up. Apparently some people have used these tough fibres as thread! When I was a little girl, my mother and I sometimes made the long gruelling climb from our home in Bowen Bay up towards Adams Rd. And along the way we saw ribwort, although we didn’t know it at the time. We called them the Crowned Princes and Princesses of Denmark, because of their flowers’ beautiful crown-like flower-heads. Oh the adventures those crowned princes and princesses have had over the two generations this game has persisted! Plantain is a wonderful entertainment system for kids on otherwise boring walks.
But it’s also a food and a valuable medicine. Modern science is slowly beginning to study and confirm what folk medicine has taught for centuries. In her review, Anne Berit Samuelsen states that “P. major contains biologically active compounds such as polysaccharides, lipids, caffeic acid derivatives, flavonoids, iridoid glycosides and terpenoids. Alkaloids and some organic acids have also been detected. A range of biological activities has been found from plant extracts including wound healing activity, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antioxidant, weak antibiotic, immuno modulating and antiulcerogenic activity.” (1) In my own life, I often use broad-leaved plantain as a wound or sting poultice. It’s handily available in the wilderness, where stings, nettle burns, and other small injuries often happen, and makes a huge difference to such inflammations when chewed up and applied directly. Ribwort is also valuable, both for the gut-cleaning (bulking) properties of its seeds (psyllium), as well as for its leaves’ value in treating coughs and uterine complaints. As an anticatarrhal and expectorant, ribwort tea is an excellent cough remedy. (2)
Food is maybe the least exciting thing about plantain, since it’s basically a plain-tasting leaf that gets tough very early in its life. But if you get stoked about the prospect of eating food out of your lawn or healing and nourishing your body naturally, plantain is definitely for you. As with so many wild greens, the young leaves are great in salads, or braised as they grow tougher. They’re also delicious in green smoothies – especially with the knowledge of all those nutrients you’re consuming! And if you are eating a grain-free diet, you may already buy the mucilaginous psyllium as a binder for coconut flour confections, or perhaps you use it simply as a dietary fibre. Either way, find it growing atop a humble plantain. Commercial psyllium seed actually comes from P. afra, ovata, or indica, but seeds of ribwort also have mucilaginous properties. Find some ribwort blossoms that have fully gone to seed, rub the seeds out into a small bowl, blow off most of the separated husks (some remaining is fine) and add a bit of water. After a while you’ll see the mucilage forming around the seeds. The mucilage is, of course, the same colour as the water, so it is only apparent in that the seeds sit increasingly distant from each other in the water, held separated by their growing coating of mucilage. When there’s enough of it you can feel its gooeyness.
But let’s get down to business. Everybody needs some inspiration to try plantain, so I recommend starting with this lovely green plantain smoothie: Pick a bunch of youngish plantain leaves (either broad-leaved or ribwort will do), wash them, check for unwanted bits, and stuff them in your blender. Cover them with ice cold water (and a few ice cubes if your blender can handle it!), and add some fresh lemon juice. Blend until the leaves are fully macerated and suspended in the water. If you want it sweet (like lemonade!) then blend in a little honey, to taste. If you want it creamy, blend in an avocado or some nut-milk. Enjoy!
(1) Anne Berit Samuelsen: The traditional uses, chemical constituents and biological activities of Plantago major L. A review. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 71, Issue 1, Pages 1-21
(2) Chloe Sobejko: Materia Medica. https://herbalmateriamedica.wordpress.com/2014/04/17/plantago-lanceolata/