Plantain, Narrow-Leaf (Plantago lanceolata)
Band Aid Plant, Buckthorn Plantain, Che Qian Zi, Ribwort, Lance-Leaf Plantain, White Man’s Foot, Wegbrade, Waybread, English Plantain, Lamb’s Tongue, Snake Plantain, Wild Sago
About This Plant
Plantain is one of the most ubiquitous plants found the world over. It is hardy and tolerant of repeated trampling and mowing and can grow in compacted soil where other plants often can’t. It is commonly found in yards, along trails, abandoned lots, along roadsides, and in open fields where livestock is frequently disturbing the ground. It is considered an indicator of agriculture in pollen diagrams and Narrow-Leaf Plantain has been found in western Norway from the Early Neolithic onwards. It is considered an indicator of grazing in that area at the time. As a pioneer plant, it plays an important ecological role in rehabilitating disturbed and compacted soils. As it spreads through disturbed landscapes, its roots break up the hard, compressed soils while also preventing erosion by holding the soil in place. Once you learn to identify it, you will start to notice it everywhere.
Narrow Leaf Plantain is an herbaceous perennial plant that is hardy in USDA zones 3 – 9. It is erect, having the ability to grow more than a foot tall if left undisturbed, but exhibits plasticity, assuming a lower, more flat, growing habit to keep it under the level of mower blades if it experiences frequent disturbances. The plant features a rosette of long, narrow, smooth-edged leaves rarely more than an inch wide and up to twelve inches long. Its widest point is in the middle of the leaf and tappers to the base of the leaf and to the tip. It features 3-5 ribbed veins that run the length of each leaf, parallel to the midrib and this is the most recognizable identifying feature.
In late Spring or Summer, one or more tall, narrow, square, and grooved flower stalks develop, growing about ten inches long or more. Each stalk is topped with a single, small, dense cylindrical-shaped flower head with golden or white projecting stamens. The flowers open in a ring around the spike, starting at the bottom and progressing upwards toward the tip. Spent flowers, sepals, and bracts below the blooms are papery brown while the buds above the blooms are gray-green. Each flower head can produce up to 200 seeds. Each flower is replaced by a small ovoid seed capsule that turns from green to brown as it matures, splitting in the lower half to release two small dark brown or black seeds. The mucilaginous seeds are used as a thickener in the cosmetics and ice cream industries and as a gelling agent for tissue culture as a cheaper alternative to agar-agar. The plant produces a thick rhizome with fibrous roots.
In addition to its medicinal applications, Plantain provides food for all kinds of wildlife. Herbivores such as rabbits, deer, cattle, and sheep will munch the leaves and flower stalks while omnivores such as groundhogs and songbirds eat the leaves and seeds. Plantain can be grown as fodder and Narrow-Leaf Plantain is considered to be of better quality for this application than its rounder leaf relative, Plantago major.
In North America, Plantain has spread from mid-Canada throughout all the United States including Alaska and Hawaii. North America, China, New Zealand, and South America all have native Plantago species. The U.S. has 29 species of Plantain, though the two we see far most often in North America are the European “cosmopolitan” varieties Common Plantain (Plantago major) and Narrow Leaf Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) that have taken a hold on American soil. Plantains are categorized under two groups – narrow leaf and broad leaf. The genus name “Plantago” comes from the Latin “planta” meaning the sole of a foot. “Lanceolata” is the Latin word for a small lance which is in reference to this plant’s long narrow leaves. “Plantain” is also the name of a type of starchy banana used in cooking and bears no relation to this plant.
Humble though it is, Plantain has long been championed both as a medicinal herb and as a food source. In ancient India, it was observed that when a mongoose fought against cobras, the mongoose would use Plantain to neutralize the venom. Alexander the Great noted the culinary and medicinal use of Plantian while in India and brought the plant back with him to Europe around 327 BC. Serfs in feudal Russia regarded Plantain’s readily-available food and medicine as God’s gift to travelers, as travel was a rare and dangerous endeavor. In Lacgunga, a 10th century Anglo-Saxon herbal anthology, Plantain appears under the name “Wegbrade” or Waybread. European settlers brought Plantain with them to North America as a therapeutic herb. It is also believed that the seeds were brought to North America by way of mud-caked boots and hooves. Plantain seemed to follower the settlers whereever they went, earning it the name “White Man’s Foot”.
Plantain seeds benefit from a period of cold stratification before germinating, so consider placing the seeds in your refrigerator for several weeks prior to planting. Seeds can be directly sown outdoors in the Spring. The tiny seeds can be broadcasted into a growing area and kept evenly moist, or they can be surface-sown indoors. The seeds will germinate in about three weeks.
Plantain can be transplanted or thinned to six to twelve inches apart.
Plantain has the ability to thrive in adverse conditions. It will grow in just about any soil type, prefers full sun but will also do well in partial shade, and in all but the driest climates needs no watering after germination beyond rainfall. It tolerates dense and compacted soils though it will grow largest in loamy soils with good drainage. Plantago major does well in partial shade and slightly moist soil while P. lanceolata prefers more sun and drier soil. Both plants will readily self-seed.
The leaves can be harvested from the plant at any time. Gently pull the leaf and it will easily separate from the root. Harvest the fresh, inner leaves as the outer, older ones are tougher. You may harvest freely and the plant will grow quickly back. The roots can also be harvested for medicine, though this is not as common. Root harvest is best done in the Fall once the plant’s energy is directed downward away from the leaves. Simply pull up the plant and gather the roots.
Plantain seeds can be easily harvested in the late Summer or Fall once they have matured and turned brown and can easily be stripped from the stalk. Run your fingers up the dried stalks, one at a time to strip the seeds and collect them. Seeds can be put through a fine strainer several times and then gently blown on to remove the hulls.
- Erosion control and soil remediation
- Animal fodder
Plantain has edible leaves and seeds and are a good source of bioavailable zinc, calcium, beta-carotene, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin K. The leaves are generally mild in flavor and slightly bitter. Older leaves can be tough and it’s best to remove the fibrous veins and midribs, then steam them or use them as a potherb. The young and tender leaves are good eaten raw in salads and can be used in much the same way as Spinach. They can be blended into juices and smoothies. Fresh or dried, they can be brewed as tea. Young seed heads can be gathered throughout Summer and used in stirfries and are said to taste surprisingly like mushrooms. Mature seeds can be sprinkled on salads or other cooked dishes. Dioscorides spoke of Plantain’s consumption as a cooked vegetable with lentils. Some older medicinal prescriptions of Plantain included the consumption of cooked leaves, making it a truly medicinal food.
While there is no clear consensus as to which variety of Plantain is preferable for medicinal use, pharmaceutical extractions are most often sourced from P. lanceolata, believed to have higher concentrations of the active constituents. Western herbalists tend to focus on the leaves while Traditional Chinese Medicine puts more emphasis on the seeds. Leaves are most often used fresh but must be crushed, chewed, or bruised to release their healing properties. Plantain can be made into poultices, teas, oils and salves, juices, syrups, and tinctures.
Plantain contains a combination of toning tannins and soothing mucilage. The mucilage helps to coat an area, supporting mucous membrane integrity. This combination makes it a good remedy for hemorrhoids and for excessive vaginal discharge. Plantain is anti-inflammatory due to the presence of iridoids (particularly aucubin) which has also been found to have antibacterial properties along with several other of its constituents. It also contains allantoin which supports tissue regeneration and skin healing. Plantain works well as a mouthwash for inflamed gums or canker sores.
Plantain contains diuretic properties and is considered a mild blood cleanser, reducing toxin-based health issues. Consumed as an infusion, it is said to help with colds, sore throats, allergies, sinus and chest congestion, and some digestive issues. It reduces mucous membrane inflammation in the mouth and throat and the resulting dry cough associated with it. An infusion of Plantain can be used in eye compresses, spritzed on for a sunburn, applied to itchy skin and rashes, or dabbed on acne and eczema. The seeds are used in the treatment of parasitic worms and consist of up to 30% mucilage which swells up in the gut, acting as a bulk laxative and soothing irritated membranes.
Plantain is known for its superb drawing-ability, setting it apart from most other tissue-healing herbs. It can help bring a blister or pimple to a head, pull a stinger out of a bee sting, or extract a deeply embedded splinter. One common name for Plantain is “Bandaid Plant” because it helps stop bleeding, supports tissue regeneration, and is naturally antiseptic. It is often used as a “spit poultice”, meaning it is thoroughly chewed before being placed on the skin as a poultice. Plantain is commonly used in healing salves to be used on insect bites, cuts, and rashes. Native Americans chewed the roots to ease toothache pain.
Plantain is generally considered a safe, edible plant for adults, children, and animals alike. According to the Botanical Safety Handbook, it is in a Safety Class 1A, which is the safest rating possible. However, anyone taking blood thinners or prone to excessive blood clotting should avoid it. It also may affect the absorption of some medications such as lithium and digoxin and increase the potassium loss associated with prescription diuretics.
Narrow Leaf Plantain is native to Eurasia, the area of Northern Africa, the Azores, the Canary Islands, Europe, Western and Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.