Plantain, Plantago major, was considered to be one of the nine sacred herbs by the ancient Saxon people, and has been celebrated in Anglo-Saxon poetry as the “mother of herbs.” There are more than 200 species of plantain and nearly as many recorded uses for this humble herb. Plantain is native to northern and central Asia and Europe.
Early colonists brought plantain to North America as one of their favored healing remedies. Native Americans called this persistent herb “white man’s foot” as it is often found growing along well-trodden foot paths. The Latin generic name means “sole of the foot.”
The indigenous Americas adopted many of the traditional European uses for this beneficial herb. They also used the plant to draw out the poison of rattlesnake bite, to soothe rheumatic pain, as a poultice to treat battle wounds, and as an eyewash. They used the fresh young leaves and seeds in their diet.
Plantain is a member of the Plantaginaceae family. Some of the familiar species, naturalized throughout North America, are: Plantago major, commonly known as common plantain, dooryard plantain, broad-leaved plantain, greater plantain, round-leafed plantain, way bread, devil’s shoestring, bird seed, snakeweed, and white man’s foot; Plantago media L., known as hoary plantain; and Plantago lanceolata L., also known as English plantain, lance-leaf plantain, buckhorn, chimney-sweeps, headsman, ribgrass, ribwort, ripplegrass, hen plant, snake plantain, fire weed, and soldier’s herb.
Two species of plantain, valued medicinally primarily for the seed, are Plantago psyllium L. and Plantago indica, also known as flea seed and plantago. The dried, ripe seeds of these species, generally called psyllium, is high in mucilage and is widely used as a bulk-forming laxative.
Plantain is a hardy and prolific perennial found in fields, lawns, roadsides, footpaths, and marginal areas throughout the temperate regions of the world. It thrives even in poor, compacted soil.
The sturdy leaves and flower stalks grow in a basal rosette directly from the mass of light-brown rootlets. Depending on the species, the leaves are broadly ovate or narrow and lance-like. The dark-green leaves have distinct, parallel ribs along their length and are slightly bitter to the taste.
The yellow-green stamens and the rust-colored sepals of the tiny flowers encircle the wand-like spikes at the end of each stalk. Plantain’s flower spikes resemble tiny cattail spikes. The yellow-green stamens are more prominent in P. lanceolata L., encircling the flower spike like a delicate wreath.
The tapered flower spikes in this species are longer than those of P. major stretching up well beyond the height of the basal leaves. Plantain flowers from June through September. Blossoms are followed by flea-size, light-brown seeds. The plant may reach to 2 ft (0.6 m) in height, and self-seeds freely.
The leaves and seeds of plantain are most often used medicinally. The fresh leaves, crushed and applied to wounds, sores, insect bites, bee and wasp stings, eczema, and sunburn are healing to tissue because of the high allantoin content.
Plantain is an ancient remedy used widely for relieving coughs, bronchitis, tuberculosis, sore throat, laryngitis, urinary infections, and digestive problems.
The infusion has been used as a blood purifying tonic, a mild expectorant, and a diuretic. The juice from crushed leaves may also stem the flow of blood from cuts, and soothe the itch of poison ivy or the sting of nettle (Urtica dioica). The root of the herb has been used to relieve toothache. The juice may relieve earache.
A decoction of plantain has been used in douche preparations to relieve leucorrhea, and the juice or infusion can ease the pain of ulcers and inflammation of the intestines. All plantains contain high amounts of mucilage and tannin, and have similar medicinal properties. Plantain is high in minerals and vitamin C and K.
Plantain is used throughout the world. It is an effective treatment for chronic colitis, acute gastritis, enteritis, and enterocolitis according to the Russian Ministry of Health.
The German Commission E, an advisory panel on herbal medicines for that country, lists plantain as a safe and effective herb with demulcent, astringent and antibacterial properties. A poultice (salve prepared from the leaf) or an infusion used as a skin wash, have been shown to reduce pain, itching, and bleeding from hemorrhoids.
Studies in Italy and Russia have confirmed plantain’s usefulness as a weight-loss remedy. In Chinese medicine plantain is considered a remedy for male impotence. The species P. major and P. lanceolata contain mucilage, the iridoid glycosides cubin and catapol, flavonoids, tannins, and silica.
Plantain seeds, particularly those of the species P. psyllium and P. ovata soaked in water and ingested, are widely used as a gentle and safe bulk laxative and anti-diarrheal. Plantago seeds from these two species are listed in The United States Pharmacopoeia XXII as an official laxative herb. Psyllium is found in numerous commercial laxative preparations.
Psyllium seed has also been proven beneficial in reducing high levels of blood cholesterol. Psyllium seeds contain a high mucilage content in addition to other phytochemicals including monoterpene alkaloids, glycosides, sugars, triterpenes, fixed oil, fatty acids, and tannins.
The entire plant may be used with an alum mordant to dye wool a bronze-gold color. A newer use of plantain starch is in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals; like corn starch, plantain starch can be used as an inert ingredient to mix with drugs in order to form tablets containing consistent measured doses of the drugs.
Harvest plantain leaves throughout the spring and summer, before the herb is in full blossom. Fresh young leaves may be eaten in salads or cooked as a potherb. The juice of fresh, bruised leaves has an antibacterial effect.
However this property is lost when the herb is infused with boiling water. Harvest seeds when they can be easily removed from the flower spikes. Dry the leaves quickly to avoid discoloration and store in clearly labeled, dark glass containers.
Leaf infusion: Place 2–4 tbsp of fresh plantain leaf, half if dried, in a warmed glass container. Bring 2-1/2 c of fresh, non-chlorinated water to the boiling point, add it to the herbs. Cover. Steep five to seven minutes. No need to decoct plantain leaves. Drink warm or cold throughout the day, up to three cups per day. The prepared tea will store for about two days in the refrigerator in a sealed jar.
Tincture: Combine 4 oz of finely-cut, fresh plantain leaf, or 2 oz dry, powdered herb with one pint of brandy, gin, or vodka, in a glass container. Cover and store the mixture away from light for about two weeks, shaking several times each day. Strain and store in a tightly capped, clearly labeled, dark glass bottle. A standard dose is 10–30 drops of the tincture in water, up to three times a day.
Pregnant women should not use plantain, particularly the laxative psyllium preparations. Nursing mothers should consult a qualified herbalist before using psyllium or treating young children with the herb.
Avoid inhaling psyllium seed powder as it may induce asthma attacks. Ingesting seeds without first soaking them in water may cause gastrointestinal problems. It is critical to drink large amounts of water when using psyllium, as the seeds absorb water in the intestine.
Persons who are interested in using herbal preparations as dietary supplements or to treat minor health conditions should note that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not subject herbal preparations to the same set of regulations applied to prescription drugs.
It is up to the manufacturer to make sure that a dietary supplement is safe before it is marketed. The FDA’s role is that of post-marketing surveillance. Since the mid-1990s, there have been reports of herbal products that were mislabeled.
In 1997, a young woman with a heart condition purchased a product that was labeled as “plantain” and experienced an abnormally rapid heartbeat. It turned out that the product was contaminated with digitalis, a powerful heart stimulant derived from foxglove.
It is best to purchase herbs or herbal preparations only from established and reliable manufacturers. Questions about the safety of a specific product or reports of adverse reactions to a herbal product should be sent to the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, listed under Resources below.
Psyllium seed and plantain may cause allergic reactions in sensitive persons.
Plantain has been reported to decrease the absorption of digoxin (a heart medication) and lithium from the intestine. Its Vitamin K content may interfere with blood-thinning medications (anticoagulants).
Plantain should not be taken together with prescription diuretics as it increases the risk of potassium loss from the bloodstream (hypokalemia). Persons taking any of these prescription medications should consult a physician before taking plantain as a dietary supplement.