Overview of the Plantain Herb
The humble Plantain, the perennial that gets trampled over day in and day out, yet doesn’t miss a chance to be of service to all members of the forests and meadows.
Naturalized far and wide but a European local, Plantago lanceolata’s leaves resemble tiny slender green swords. Lanceolata likes to grow in sunny fields with compacted soil where animals graze and bees forage.
Alternatively, Plantago major, whose leaves are wider and more or less oval, enjoys growing in partial shade on the border between forest and field. Both are extremely medicinal and an indispensable herb in the self sufficient forager’s cupboard.
Plantago ovata or Plantago psyllium, whose hairy thin leaves and blond seed husks separate it from its cousins, is used for dietary fiber sold under the name of psyllium husks.
Plantago grows prolifically in urban settings such as sidewalks, cracks in the concrete jungle, and other disturbed sites. It is also known as white man’s footprint, because it followed cultural orphans as they colonized the vast expanses of native territory.
Plantago usually grows in disturbed sites and along roads. Hence, it prefers heavy soils with clay and open skies. In my garden, Plantago appears as a very welcomed companion plant in soil worked the previous year. It enjoys the random splash of water and mulch but definitely doesn’t need it. As a perennial, the plants will flower and go to seed the second year after planting. Seeds are an abundance and not hard at all to self-propagate. I generally wait for volunteer plants to pop up, then I’ll transplant them carefully where I see fit. Although, if you harvest seeds, let them dry out in a cool dark place for six or so weeks then store in an airtight jar, preferably also in a cool dark place. I store all of my seeds in the fridge. Consistent cool and dark temperature ensures higher germination rates for the seeds when its time to roll ’em out. In spring, when the soil is workable I would sprinkle a handful of seeds every three inches or so to make a row in between my future nightshade family rows. I use Plantago major as a living green mulch which also has a deep taproot so it can break up the soil and bring those good minerals to the top layer via leaf mulching.
Growth and Care
The Plantain family loves open skies with full sun, but they will tolerate shade. I have observed that if grown in partial shade, they will grow bigger and wider in an effort to catch more sunlight, so this may be something a gardener is interested in, at the expense of the added stress to the plant, of course. I love these species because they are very carefree and although no plant deserves it, will tolerate neglect. As far as pest management goes, sometimes a leaf or two will get gnawed at by a caterpillar in early spring, but the leaves mature fast and develop their own defenses, such as hairs, bitterness or become quite woody and stringy. Domesticated birds and other avian species which have access to the garden will readily eat the fresh young leaves to the point where it is just a green flowering stalk with a few old trampled fibrous leaves at the base of the rosette.
Plantago enjoys a pH that is a bit on the alkaline side with a solid dressing of humus or well-aged manure. While it does enjoy heavy clay, no plant ever turns down a nice layer of topsoil and compost.
Harvesting Plantain Leaves
Young leaves are best, for the more mature ones tend to be fibrous and better used for flossing. Although, it really is up to the gardener to decide what “mature” is. I know some old ladies who will gnaw at a two year old leaf and say it is good for your teeth (like celery stalks, the fibers are good for scrubbing off plaque).
Well, I like my Plantago young and fresh, crispy and tender so I’ll resort to other ways to fight whatever plaque I may have covering my teeth. So, early in the morning, while all the fresh juices are still in the leaves, before the hot, hot sun drives them to the root and stem, I like to cut a third of the leaves with some shears or even a well-seasoned gardener’s thumbnail. I might repeat this process every 3 weeks until the summer solstice, then I’ll let the plants spend their energy in producing seeds.
After the summer solstice, the nights begin to get longer, and plants feel this change. They understand that winter is coming and the time for vegetative growth is over, and now they shall spend all their energy on making as many seeds as possible so they may continue their lineage the following season.
Utilizing Plantain to Soothe & Heal
Something I have seen in my travels in regards to processing Platago is that a good friend of mine would collect Lanceolata leaves and chop ’em up, then she would stuff them in a jar and cover full with honey. Interestingly enough, she would bury the jars full of honey and Plantago leaves in the soil. Almost like making kimchi. After 6 or so months, or the winter months have passed, she would unearth them, and this my friends, was the best cough syrup I have ever had.
Alternatively, you can place your jars in the cellar, and instead of honey you can use high-quality olive oil. Anything that will eventually be good to coat the throat. This syrup, whether honey or olive oil can be applied to insect bites, wounds and rashes. It is even better internally as Plantago has been proven to help with ulcers and is an excellent expectorant.
If you are alone in the wilderness and find yourself in need of Plantago relief, you may chew up the leaves and make a spit poultice or a plant band-aid which can be applied externally for excellent relief. All you do it chew up fresh young leaves and spit ’em back out, then put the “spit poultice” on the affected area and await instant soothing relief.
I don’t believe there is a soul alive who would contest the benefits of the Plantago species. Even if you don’t use it to its full potential as a medicinal, it is still a great companion plant in the garden and takes up good space in tho corners where you don’t want to go very often, those hard to reach corners where plants are content with partial neglect and a splash of water every now and then, yet provide excellent benefits.
Plantago is a great addition to the garden and also to the medicine closet and every self sufficient gardener should have at least a few plants growing here or there. The output of having them far surpasses the the input needed to tend to them. Poultices, plant band-aids, balms, syrups and teas are just some of the medicinal products Plantago can offer the weary steward of the land. Go find some in the wild, adopt them, tend to them and they will return the favors tenfold for years to come.