“Briefly, the plantains are singularly good sound herbs, to heal fresh or old wounds, or sores, either inwards or outward” – Nicholas Cuplpepper
The plantain family has three genera and about 200 species worldwide of which 30 have a herbal use. Plantains are some of the most widely distributed herbs that grow in temperate regions.
Leaves are generally basal but may be alternate or opposite if the species is cauline. Flowers are small and inconspicuous, growing in heads or spikes. All members of this family are bisexual. Sepals, petals and stamens of the flowers all grow in sets of four.
In New Zealand and Australia there are many native species and the Maori had uses for plantain in assisting childbirth. On the world scene there are many varieties mentioned in different herbals – buck’s horn plantain, hoary plantain, ispaghul plantain, sea plantain and water plantain. The three most commonly known herbs are:–
Ribwort or narrow–leaf plantain
Leaves radiate out from the centre of the plant, which has a strong taproot. The leaves are long, lance–shaped and deeply grooved. It is bitter to eat though it is more readily found than P. major. Rich in vitamins A and C. High mineral content – silicon, zinc and potassium.
Rat–tail, greater plantain or broad–leaf plantain
The natives of America called it Englishman’s foot as it “followed wherever the white man walked”. (This has been perpetuated by Longfellow who mentioned it in his epic poem Hiawatha.) It has soft, oval–shaped leaves which grow from long, narrow stalks. These emerge from the central rhizome and give this plantain its common name of rat–tail. It has multiple adventitious roots and has vitamins C and K along with calcium, potassium and sulphur mineral content.
This is the plantain used in cooking as the soft young leaves of the round–leaf plantain have a better flavour. These can be steamed or blanched and eaten. They can also be added to salads.
Combined with other good herbs, such as sow thistle, dandelion and yarrow, it makes a good ‘weed’ salad. Use it with greens such as spinach, cabbage and lettuce to soften the slightly bitter flavour. Fresh young leaves are better for stir–fry and steamed dishes while older leaves can be chopped and used in stews and soups. The narrow–leaf variety is probably too bitter to use in cooking.
A tall growing annual that has not readily naturalised like the narrow–leaf or broad–leaf types. The leaves are sticky and hairy. The seeds emerge from the numerous white flowers and are flea-shaped, hence its common name of flea seed.
P. psyllium and P. indica seeds are rich in mucilage and are both commercially known as psyllium. The seeds swell considerably in water so are used in the treatment of constipation, as the gelatinous mass acts as a bulk purgative.
Plantain has a long traditional use for the treatment of sores and skin complaints. Every summer I infuse plantain leaves in vegetable oil as it is a standard oil used in the ‘baby bottom’ ointments I make.
Principally used as a poultice, ointment or in a decoction for external treatment of wounds, plantain has the ability to destroy a wide range of micro-organisms as well as stimulate the healing process (epithelisation). The upper side of plantain leaves can be used to draw poisons from wounds, while the undersides are used to heal the wound. Pour boiling water onto the leaves and mash them slightly – these can be wrapped in muslin and used as a poultice. The juice has been used to treat ulcers and boils.
“The unattractive and tenacious Plantains are the scourge of gardeners, but many are still highly respected in folk medicine from Africa to Vietnam.” – Malcolm Stuart
This article is written in memory of Nalda van de Ven. Stalwart of the Putarara Tokoroa & District Herb Society, Nalda was a diligent gatherer of plantain varieties and held the Plantain Collection on behalf of the Herb Federation from the late 1980s until she gave the collection away when ill health became an issue. Nalda died earlier this year.
HerbNews – Autumn 2013