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1Plantago major is often called plantain, not to be confused with the banana-like plantain which is delicious fried. Plantago is a Eurasian plant that is naturalized throughout much of the United States and considered to be an annoying weed by most who come across it. It grows well in compacted soils so it often appears along trails, between stepping stones and in cracks in sidewalks. Mine grows prolifically along the edge of the driveway.
Plantain has a basal rosette of oval leaves with prominent venation, raised quite a bit on the underside of the leaf. It is hairless with a smooth margin. The flowers are inconspicuous. They are very small and greenish-brown with purple stamen and they cluster densely around a central spike. The spike, is very conspicuous.
There are several cultivars of Plantago major that are more attractive than the wild type including
Plantago major var. atropurpurea or Purple Plantain, which is quite a bit larger. The leaves turn purple in the fall.
Plantago lanceolata or narrowleaf plantain is a similar species with longer, thinner leaves and a shorter flower cluster on top of a longer stem. It has similar magical and medicinal properties to broadleaf plantain.
Plantago ovata, Plantago arenaria and Plantago psyllium are the source of psyllium seeds and psyllium husks which are common additions to fiber supplements.
History and Folklore
Plantago seeds are often found in grain seeds and that is how they have spread all over the world. It was called “White man’s footprint” by Native Americans because it sprouted up wherever European settlers had spent any amount of time. It was also called “Soldier’s herb” due to its use as a field dressing.
The “waybread” mentioned in the Nine herbs charm of Wodin or Odin is believed to be plantago.
Plantago likes full sun. Other than that, it’s not very picky.
Harvesting & Storage
Leaves should be used fresh if at all possible. Select young, tender leaves whether you are using fresh or drying for tea. If you’re cooking it, you may wish to remove the sinewy veins.
It can also be used in any working to enhance the effect of other herbs.
Plantago is rumored to have an expectorant affect on the lungs and the tea is recommended for people who are trying to quit smoking as well as for people suffering from lung complaints.
People who take blood thinners or who are at risk for blood clots should never take plantago internally, not as a vegetable or a tea, but can use it externally.
Plantago can be shredded or chewed and applied to insect bites, poison ivy and other skin irritations for quick relief. It can also be added to a poultice.
The leaves are edible but tough and stringy. Young leaves are preferred as they are more tender. They may be prepared like spinach. Dried, they make a good tea.
Additional Notes and Cautions
Plantago may be used in place of comfrey in all herbal preparations, particularly for those with liver issues. It is a safer alternative and has similar properties.
Although plantago is used for treating skin irritations, some people get contact dermatitis from it. Use caution.
As plantago is a coagulant, those who are taking blood thinners or who are at risk for blood clot should not use it internally.