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Yesterday my youngest daughter and I went on a foraging adventure where I happily stumbled upon a huge area of plantain weed. We quickly filled our basket with this amazing plant medicine. I love collecting and using this common backyard “weed” and consider it the best first-aid remedy for insect stings, nettle rash, cuts, and scrapes. I even had a chance to use it when I brushed up against some stinging nettle in my foraging exuberance. I shouldn’t leave out that it is also effective for common ailments including coughs, bronchitis, sore throats, and irritable digestive tracts.
Here’s everything you need to know about foraging for this mighty yet often underestimated plant! It’s my goal to encourage others to learn about this medicinal herb and all of its amazing health benefits.
What is Plantain Weed?
Plantain weed, often referred to as nature’s bandage is a common weed that grows in many backyards, roadsides, and footpaths around the world. Plantain has been used for centuries as a healing plant, and it has an impressive array of uses, from its edible to medicinal properties.
To the indigenous peoples of America, plantain became known as the “white man’s footprint” because it sprang up in the footprints of the settlers. Its name Plantago comes from the word planta, meaning sole or foot.
Where Does Plantain Grow?
Plantain (Plantago spp.) is native to Europe and northern and central Asia but can be found growing in the wild all over the world. There are many different species of Plantago that grow worldwide, including three main ones in North America: Plantago major, Plantago Rugelii, and Plantago lanceolata.
Plantain is a hardy plant that requires little care and grows in many different climates. You can eat the leaves, and the seeds, or use them as medicine.
The three main species of plantain weed in North America grow in ground-hugging rosettes that have smooth-edged leaves with prominent, stretchy parallel veins. When you break off a leaf from the base of one of these plants, usually a few veins will be visible like the strings on a celery stalk.
Below are the differences between the three species that are easy to spot, even for beginner foragers:
- The oval-shaped leaves of Plantago major (also called broadleaf plantain) have smooth or gently toothed margins.
- Plantago rugelii (also called blackseed plantain)looks similar, but with reddish or purple leaf-stalk bases (P. major leafstalks are green).
- Plantago lanceolata (also called narrowleaf or ribwort plantain) has narrow leaves that grow up to a foot long but are usually no more than an inch wide.
The flowers and seeds of Plantago major, P. rugelii, and P. lanceolata grow on leafless stalks that emerge from the center of the leaf rosette. The flower heads may cover most of the stalk (P. major and P. rugelii) or just the top inch or so (P. lanceolata). P. major’s seed heads start out covered by green, scale-like seeds that eventually turn brown, whereas P. rugelii’s turn black. P. lanceolata has tiny white flowers projecting out its 1 to 2-inch seed heads.
I always recommend that people get a foraging guidebook, especially if they are new to identifying plants. The books I recommend are listed in my favorite books and field guides on foraging and plant identification.
I love foraging for plantain weed because you can freely harvest as much as you want during its growing season since it is an invasive, non-native plant.
Plantain leaves can be picked and used whenever needed as they remain green throughout the year. Simply crush or chew a leaf, then apply it to the area that requires attention. If you live in an a region like mine with harsh winters, you can do like I do and freeze the leaves for winter use.
For making medicine for future use, gather the leaves during the summer and dry them in a warm dry place either on brown paper bags or drying screens. Turn them daily until they are crisp. Discard any that turn black.
Fresh young plantain leaves can be eaten in salads or steamed lightly and eaten as a vegetable similar to cooked spinach. Be sure to gather only the youngest, tenderest leaves, as the larger leaves tend to become tough and bitter.
It is best to harvest the seeds when they are ripe and dry them by stripping the seed heads from the stalks and spreading them on brown paper to dry completely before removing the seeds and storing them in jars. The labor-intensive process yields a small number of seeds, but they are quite tasty and can be ground into flour or left whole to sprinkle on top of salads.
Medicinal Uses of Plantain
Plantain weed is a great herb for your first aid kit. Its antibacterial, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and astringent properties make it effective in treating a wide range of common ailments.
- The astringent, antibacterial leaves, crushed or chewed, can be applied topically to bug bites, stings, rashes, and superficial wounds.
- Common plantain quickly staunches blood flow and helps with wound healing.
- It may be used instead of comfrey in treating bruises and broken bones.
- An ointment or lotion may be used to treat hemorrhoids and ulcers.
- Taken internally, plantain weed is diuretic, expectorant, and decongestant.
- It can be used in the treatment of gastritis, peptic ulcers, diarrhea, dysentery, irritable bowel syndrome, respiratory congestion, loss of voice, and urinary tract bleeding.
As an herbalist, I am deeply invested in the ethical implications of my practice. To me, it is a way to reclaim the ancestral plant knowledge that has been lost and to reconnect with that sense of rootedness in the local plant populations I work with. It’s equally important that we share this knowledge with others.
I believe that herbalists have a responsibility to steward our local bioregions—to learn about the medicinal plants that grow where we live and to use those plants in our practices. The resurgence of a bioregional approach to herbalism today is a response to the ethical implications of herbal practice in a world that is rapidly losing its connection with nature.
For me, herbalism is a way to connect with the Earth and all its inhabitants. It’s an act of love that keeps me grounded in my local ecosystem, and I believe that it can help others do the same.
Disclaimer: The information provided throughout this site is for educational purposes only and is not to be regarded as a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. The information provided is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the guidance of your qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.