Plantain (Plantago spp.)

Common Names: Plantain, White man’s footpring

Botanical Name: Plantago spp.

Energetics: cool, moist

Taste bland, sl. bitter

Actions: demulcent, astringent, vulnerary, drawing agent

Plantain is a supremely healing herb for almost any injury to the skin and mucosa, it is most well known for its efficiency at treating external wounds and bug bites and the case studies below show how well deserved this reputation is. However, Plantain is also very useful in the treatment of any number of internal ailments as well, including IBS, gastric ulcers, bronchitis, food poisoning and any other hot, inflamed condition that needs some moistening and cooling. The plant is a cell proliferent (inducing rapid creation of new cells in order to more quickly heal some kind of wound or abrasion) and so quite effective for local or systemic irritation as well as slow healing breaks in the integrity of the skin or mucosa.

It combines well with Evening Primrose and Peach for external injuries, allergic reactions and insect venom, either as fresh plants poultices or fresh plant tinctures. For inflammation and dryness in the lungs, it teams up very nicely with Mallow as a tea. For chronic inflammation of the gut I like it with either Mallow or Elm, a bit of Rose plus a nice gentle aromatic like Chamomile or Fennel. For low grade or acute food poisoning, try Plantain with Mugwort or Larrea, or both. Acute urinary tract infections are often greatly benefitted by tinctures of Beebalm, Plantain and Bidens, with Alder added in if it is an especially difficult case or if there is distinct lymphatic involvement.

Plantain is the basis for a great many salves, but I especially like it combined with Cottonwood bud/bark, Yarrow and Pine pitch for an aromatic, stimulating yet very healing balm for all kinds of scrapes, cuts, abrasions, splinters and other first aid type needs.

Preparation: Fresh plant poultice, fresh plant tincture, fresh plant infused in oil or dried leaf for tea, depending on what you need. The dried plant, contrary to what you may have heard is actually a very effective gut and skin healer, though it is much less effective than the fresh plant for venomous stings or bites.

Dosage: Tea/infusion by the cup, tincture by the dropperful, salve by the dollop and fresh plant by the leaf.

Cautions and Contradictions: None, except be sure not to overcool an already cool constitution with too much used internally over a long period of time.

Case Study #1

A couple of years ago an student of ours was bitten by a tick on her arm. I’ve never ever ever seen a tick here and neither has Wolf, and he’s been here nearly thirty years. But ah well, she pulled a tick off of her arm (inner elbow crease area), and the bite site proceeded to swell up, get a ring of red around it, become white and pitted in the center and cause her muscle pain in the surrounding area. Now, I wasn’t home when this happened, I was in South Dakota which made suggesting treatment via occasional email access difficult. She was worried it might be lyme’s disease. I’d had no experience with Lyme’s at that point so I was worried too.

When I got home a few days later I looked at it and thought to myself, “hmmm, looks like an infected spider bite, where’s the Plantain?” and said so too, but with the ring of red and muscle pain I was concerned and spaced out the Plantain. I looked at various medical picture of the bull’s eye type rash that sometimes accompanies Lyme’s, it didn’t look anything like her red ring but some of the symptoms were the same. I printed off David Winston’s excellent handout on Lyme and shared it with the student.

The red was getting bigger and meaner looking, though she was using clay poultices and applying various antibacterial herbs like Melissa (the student is an herbalist too). Next, I asked a good friend of mine, Ananda Wilson, about her Lyme’s protocol since I knew she’d dealt with it several times, she also suggested a green plant poultice (she might have even said Plantain, damned if I can remember now) as well as other good plants.

The student ended up going to the clinic and getting a Lyme test (which came back negative, although they are infamously incorrect and count on antibodies being present, which doesn’t usually happen in the first month after the bite). The doctor insisted she take a two week course of very strong antibiotics. The student reluctantly complied and got a bad bellyache despite lots of probiotics. The bite site didn’t get any better, at all. If anything, it got redder and madder looking.

A week later, the student started having strange tingling in her fingers and toes… Soon, any temperature change for her extremities (like river water on her toes or walking a long while) caused her excruciating pain and the tingling/pain was moving up her hands and feet. Well shit, thought I. Nerves or circulatory? We couldn’t figure it out and were worried about Lyme related nerve damage. It wouldn’t respond to nerve herbs though, so back to the clinic we went. Turns out she was having a rare reaction to the antibiotics and now had rapidly spreading vasculitis. They said that they hoped it would heal if she stopped the antibiotics. She paid her now $300 bill (who knew that you had to pay for vasculitis?).

So, finally, I walked down to the river and picked four Plantain leaves and told her to make a spit poultice and leave it on the still infected bite site overnight, repeat every night for four nights. And whaddya know? The infection was nearly gone overnight, a quarter of the size that it was, no more muscle pain, very little redness. A couple more nights of Plantain poultices brought about a complete recovery.

We did a flavanoid rich regimen for the vasculitis (rose, hawthorn, elderberry, bilberry and so on) which also receded, although there continued to be periodic outbreaks every couple of months for a while.

There’s a lesson in this, isn’t there? Not that one shouldn’t get tested/treated for Lyme ASAP, one certainly SHOULD, it’s a dangerous disease that can easily go agonizingly chronic. No, it’s that one should listen to one’s intuition… if we’d just used Plantain at the first sign of infection/redness, we would have been saved $300, stress and vasculitis.

Case Study #2

One chilly spring afternoon I was planting berry bushes in the riverbank. It was cold, and my hands were numb and covered in dirt and sand, so when the palm of my right hand started to itch I just scratched absentmindedly at it and went back to work. It kept on itching, so I looked down at it and notice a few white raised bumps. Hmmm, that’s weird, and went back to planting the nearest blackberry bush. Five minutes later when I stood up from planting I tried to wipe the dirt off my hand and noticed I couldn’t close it and that the upper right quadrant of my hand was very very swollen. After I washed my hand off in the river, I was able to sit there and watch it continue to swell, moving from one section of my hand to my whole hand and then to my wrist. I stuck my hand back in the cold river and wished for some fresh Plantain. Seeing as there was none around and moving seemed like it might worsen the condition, I asked Loba to run up to the cabin on the mesa and get my Plantain tincture. In the meantime I asked my daughter Rhiannon to harvest a handful of the fresh aromatic sprigs of Mugwort popping up nearby. I chewed up a wad of the bitter herb, spit the plant matter back on the original site of swelling and swallowed the juice. I continued to do this over and over, replacing the herb each time it grew hot. Within five minutes the swelling ceased to spread. It didn’t hurt, but the skin was alarmingly tight.

Loba came back in about another five minutes, and I doused the site with the Plantain tincture as well as swallowing about two dropperfuls right away. I took another dropperful a few minutes later and the swelling began to recede the tiniest bit. At this point, I decided sitting on the cold ground and shivering was probably not helpful and crossed the river and got myself back up to the cabin. At the cabin, I continued to keep the site soaked with Plantain tincture and took 1/2 a dropperful every half hour or so. As the swelling continued to go down, I also took two drops of Osha for good measure. My hand begin to throb and hurt as the blood was able to move around again, but resolved in a few hours. The situation was completely better by mid-day the next day.

Case Study #3

My partner Loba accidentally squished a poor sleepy bee into her inner arm and it stung her. We dabbed some Larrea oil on it and went back to supper. This helped initially, and the pain resolved for several hours. However, Loba woke up in the middle of the night in severe pain and by morning her whole upper arm was red, hot and tremendously swollen. In addition, she was beginning to break out in angry red hives on her face, which was certainly not a good sign. I got the Plantain tincture out and instructed her to take two dropperfuls internally right away and to soak a cloth in the tincture and keep it on the stung area. The pain and swelling lessened in about an hour, and with repeated doses and applications the reaction was mostly resolved in twenty four hours and completely gone in forty eight hours.

In all cases, the reaction could have become severe enough to be a real problem or potentially dangerous. I’m definitely grateful that I keep so much tinctured fresh Plantain on hand.

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