Friday, September 25, 2009

Plantain (Plantago)

Plantain (Plantago)

And, you, Waybread [Plantain], mother of herbs,
open to the east, mighty within;
carts rolled over you, women rode over you,
over you brides cried out, bulls snorted over you.
All you withstood then, and were crushed;
So you withstand poison and contagion
and the loathsome one who travels through the land. [1]
--- from Lacnunga LXXIX-LXXXII [More information here]

ROMEO: Your plantain leaf is excellent for that.
BENVOLIO: For what, I pray thee?
ROMEO: For your broken shin. [2]
--- William Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet", Act I. Scene II.

Common names

Black jack, black plantain, bodaich dhubha ("the black men", archaic children's name), broad leaved plantain, buckhorn plantain, carl doddies, cocks, common plantain, costa canina, cuckoo's bread, curl doddy, dog's ribs, dooryard plantain, English plantain, Englishman's foot, fechters (fighters), greater plantain, headman, hen plant, hock cockle, jackstraw, johnsmas-flooer, kemp (to fight), kempseed, lamb’s tongue, lance-leaved plantain, lanceleaf indianwheat, lanceleaf plantain, long plantain, lus an t'slanuchaidh, narrow leaved plantain, narrowleaf plantain, quinquenervia, rat-tail plantain, ribble grass, ribgrass, ribwort plantain, ripple grass, round-leaved plantain, rub grass, sl├án-lus (healing plant), snaithlus, snake plantain, snake weed, sodgers, soldier's herb, soldiers, warba blades, waybread, waybroad, wendles, white man's foot.

Scientific Names

  • Plantago lanceolata (English plantain)
  • Plantago major (broadleaf plantain)

This adventive perennial plant consists of a rosette of basal leaves and one or more flowering stalks. The basal leaves are up to 12" long and 1" across, but more commonly about half this size. They are broadly linear and smooth along the margins, being broadest toward the middle and tapering toward their tips and the base of the plant. There are 3-5 parallel veins along the length of each leaf. The leaves are glabrous to sparsely hairy; there are usually a few hairs along the central vein on the underside of each leaf. The narrow flowering stalks are devoid of leaves and about 6-18" tall. They are often slightly furrowed or angular, and there are scattered hairs on the stalks toward the base of the plant.

Each stalk terminates in an oblongoid spike of flowers about ½–2" long. The small flowers are densely crowded together in whorls all along this spike. During the bud stage, this spike is green and bluntly conical at its apex, but it becomes light brown and cylindrical as the flowers bloom from the bottom to the top. Each flower has 4 sepals, a short corolla with 4 spreading lobes, and some papery bracts underneath. The strongly exerted stamens are the most conspicuous feature of the flowers, which have large white anthers on slender filaments. The blooming period occurs intermittently from late spring to early fall and can last several months for a population of plants in a given locale. The flowers are wind-pollinated and they have no floral scent.

Each flower is replaced by a small seed capsule that is ovoid or oblongoid; it splits cleanly and evenly in the lower half to release 2 small seeds. Each seed is oblongoid, dark brown or black, and strongly indented on one side. The root system consists of a shallow crown of coarse fibrous roots. This plant spreads primarily by reseeding itself. [3]

Some old books call the species Costa canina in allusion to the prominent veinings in the leaves. The veinings also earned it the name Ribwort, and it is this feature that caused it to earn the mediaeval name of Quinquenervia.

Another old popular name was ‘Kemps’. This word, with its origin in the Danish koempe, meaning warrior, refers to a game that children used to play with the plant: using the flower stalks as swords, they tried to knock the heads off their competitors' weapons. The Anglo-Saxon word for a soldier was cempa, and thus see related to kemps.

The namesfire-weed or fire leaf refer to the fact that farmers used to judge whether a haystack would be likely to catch fire by feeling a leaf of ribwort plantain to see how much moisture was left in the hay. [4] [5]

Medical Uses

Waybread (plantago major), greater plantain or dock, was called 'way-broad' in Old English for its wide leaves and its tendency to grow near roadsides. This plant's durability may be the source of the idea that it confers resilience. Waybread was believed to be effective against headache and sore throat. [6]

Chewing plantain leaves and applying them to the skin is a great remedy for stings, bites, cuts, itchy rashes. Some people call these “fairy bandaids.” [7]

All of the plantains contain a high level of tannin and the seeds have a high mucilage content. The astringent property of the leaves due to the tannin makes the leaves useful for all types of sores on the skin, cuts, bites and various inflammations. A tea brewed with the seeds is a treatment for diarrhea and dysentery and for bleeding in the mouth or other mucous membranes. [8]

Ribwort plantain is a safe and effective treatment for quickly staunches blood flow and encourages the repair of damaged tissue. The leaves have antibacterial properties. They have a bitter flavour and are astringent, demulcent, mildly expectorant, haemostatic and ophthalmic. Internally, they are used in the treatment of a wide range of complaints including diarrhoea, gastritis, peptic ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, haemorrhage, haemorrhoids, cystitis, bronchitis, catarrh, sinusitis, asthma and hay fever. They are used externally in treating skin inflammations, malignant ulcers, cuts and stings. The heated leaves are used as a wet dressing for wounds and swellings. The root is a remedy for the bite of rattlesnakes, used in equal portions with common horehound (Marrubium vulgare). The seeds are used in the treatment of parasitic worms. Plantain seeds contain up to 30% mucilage which swells up in the gut, acting as a bulk laxative and soothing irritated membranes. A distilled water made from the plant makes an excellent eye lotion. A good fibre is obtained from the leaves, suitable for textiles. A mucilage from the seed coats is used as a fabric stiffener, obtained by macerating the seed in hot water. Gold and brown dyes are obtained from the whole plant. [9]

A volunteer working with an AIDS patient group became acquainted with a man who had been diagnosed some time earlier as having disabling AIDS-Related Complex (ARC). The patient experienced night sweats, diarrhea, weight loss, recurrent bouts of high fever, frequent infections, and, at times, difficulty in concentrating. The volunteer and the patient came down with a flu that persisted for more than two weeks. The volunteer began searching for botanicals that had been used in folk medicine to treat viral diseases, plants that would be both locally available and relatively non-toxic.

Plantago lanceolata, an ubiquitous, introduced weed, common in grassy areas and disturbed soils throughout the US, seemed to be a possibility. The volunteer made a tea of one medium-sized leaf simmered in water to make about a cup of liquid and took a large swallow on arising, at bedtime, and sometimes at lunch. Recovery from the flu was rapid, taking two to three days. Considering the possibility that the "active substance(s)" in P. lanceolata might be lectins, and hence, possibly of use in HIV infection, both continued to take the tea at the same dosage. (The volunteer took it to gain an understanding of any possible side effects.)

During the following six months, using the P. lanceolata infusion (plus ensuring adequate calcium) and avoiding sweets, the patient found that severely swollen lymph nodes in the neck gradually but steadily reduced in size; a previously recurring cyst in the neck did not recur; he gained some weight; he did not complain of night sweats; he reported instances of diarrhea were very infrequent; his energy improved; and his memory and concentration appeared normal. He maintained a fairly full schedule including public speaking and travel. During this period of time, the man was not taking AZT, and he was not involved in any clinical trials or experimental AIDS treatments. The P. lanceolata appears to be the only factor which might explain the improvements observed. [10]

Plantain can be used as a tea, tincture or Homoeopathic remedy therapeutically, and is wonderful for detoxifying the body, and helps when a person is giving up smoking. A poultice on all-skin ailments and burns works quickly and bleeding stops immediately when you place a leaf on a cut.

Psyllium husks are the dried seeds that come from Plantain, and they can be used for roughage with your food. They have the remarkable property of being able to absorb about twenty times their weight of water.

Chopped plantain can be added to salads, stir fry, or used as cooked greens, soup or herbal tea. Add the juice occasionally to orange or pineapple juice for a green chlorophyll supplement. [11]

Medically, the effects of plantain can be described as follows:

  • Anti-hemorrhagic (an agent to stop hemorrhages)
  • Astringent (a binding agent that contracts organic tissue, reducing secretions or discharges of mucous and fluid from the body)
  • Demulcent (a substance that soothes inflamed mucous membranes and protects them from irritation)
  • Diuretic (an agent that increases the volume and flow of urine which cleanses the urinary system)
  • Expectorant (an agent that promotes the discharge of mucous and secretions from the respiratory passages)
  • Hemostatic (an agent that controls bleeding)

The leaves placed in shoes will keep the feet free from blisters. [12]

It has been traditionally use for the treatment of respiratory complaints, including coughs and inflammation.

The leaves, applied to an open wound were used to stop bleeding. The fresh leaves are applied whole or bruised in the form of a poultice.

The leaves can be rubbed into insects and nettle stings, or applied to burns and scalds to afford relief. [13]

Plantago contains mucilage, tannins and silicic acid. It is probably the mucilage which contributes most to the action of the plant. Plantago has the ability to reduce the amount of inflammation present in the mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract.

It has been noted that plantain juice will not go mouldy during storage despite large amounts of sugar being present. This has been found to be due to the presence of naturally occurring antibiotics. [14]

Plantain infusion (tea) can also be used as a soothing wash for sunburn, windburn, rashes, or wounds. To make a plantain infusion, simply add a small handful of fresh plantain leaves to a cup or two of water, and bring to a gentle boil. Turn off heat, and let steep, then strain out the leaves. The infusion is best when fresh, although it can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days.

A good way to use plantain is in a herbally infused oil. Gently fill a container with fresh plantain leaves that have been lightly bruised or crushed. (Dried plantain can be used - if you are using dried plant material, you only need to fill the jar one-half full). Cover the leaves with oil...any vegetable oil will do. Cover the container with a lid, and let it sit in the sun for a couple of weeks. The oil will turn a beautiful dark green color. Strain out the leaves and you have a lovely herbal oil to use. It's wonderful to soften, soothe and heal any manner of skin conditions. An herbal salve can be made from this oil...simply add 1-2 ounces of melted beeswax to the warmed, infused oil. Stir over low heat until the beeswax and oil are uniformly combined, and then pour into clean jars or tubs. [15]

Relieve bites, boils, bruises, burns, cuts, eczema, mastitis, ringworm, scalds, scratches and wounds by applying the freshly crushed leaves directly on the affected area. An infusion of leaves taken internally or washed over the area can be add additional relief.

Relieve constipation by drinking a mild laxative made of plantain seeds: Soak seeds in a glass of cold water until mixture becomes thick. Stir frequently and drink. It may be flavored with a squeeze of lemon or eaten with yogurt and fruit.

  • Dosage for adults: 2-4 tablespoons
  • Dosage for children: 1 tablespoon

Relieve hemorrhoids by preparing an ointment or salve. Relieve inflamed eyes by bathing the eyes with an infusion.

Plantains as Food

As food, plantain can be steamed, the leaves dipped in batter and fried, or the young leaves eaten raw. [16]

Young leaves, raw or cooked, are rather bitter and very tedious to prepare. The fibrous strands are best removed prior to eating. The very young leaves are somewhat better and are less fibrous. Seeds may be cooked and used like sago. The seed can be ground into a powder and added to flours when making bread or cakes. [17]

Young plantain leaves make a good addition to salad and the more mature leaves can be steamed and eaten with the fibers easily removed after cooking. Taste is similar to chard. Plantain is high in vitamins A, K and C. The seeds gathered when dry are a good source of protein. [18]

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