My grandmother occasionally sent me out in the yard with my brown paper sack and butcher knife to gather some plantain weeds, roots and all. We had plenty of it when I was a child growing up. You probably have some of that bothersome broadleaf plantain weed growing across your own lawn too, since it's about as plentiful as the dandelions. But, hopefully its not growing in your garden, because its quite hard to eliminate.
In this day and age plantain grows almost anywhere in the world, but it hasn't always been that way. Before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, it was only found in Europe and Asia. Native Americans called it white man's foot, because it arrived in this country with the Europeans and spread across the country as the white man advanced westward. Some people call it way-bread or snake weed instead of plantain, while others even call it cuckoos-bread.
Plantain is wind pollinated, and one plant can produce thousands of seeds, which can survive and sprout up in the soil anytime it so desires over the next 60 years. There are more than 200 different species of plantain, but the two you most likely you'll find in your yard are the narrow-leafed Plantain lanceolata and the broad-leafed Plantain major. You can identify both by looking at the rosette of leaves, which have veins that run their entire length; most other kinds of plants have a long single vein with smaller ones forking out from it. The purplish-green flower grows at the end of a long stalk, and a compact seed head turns from green to brown as the plant reaches maturity.
The reason the early Europeans brought plantain with them to the American shores was for its many healing qualities, which have long been known and are well documented. Native Americans chewed the plantain leaves to make a poultice for rattlesnake bites, and the American colonist gnawed at the roots to stop toothaches.
Plantains are anti-inflammatory and have numbing properties. My grandmother would make a poultice that effectively worked on insect bites and bee stings. I very well remember one time when I was about 8, she had called me for the second time to come in for lunch, so I dropped what I was doing and made a mad rush for the back door. As I passed by the dinning room window I was attacked by a hoard of wasps. They nailed me on my neck seven different times. Within minutes my grandmother had a plantain poultice wrapped around my neck and almost immediately the discomfort was gone. She even wrapped my cut fingers with a single plantain leave and taped it down to help stanch the bleeding. She claimed the weed prevents infection and speeds healing.
She used to make a tea from the leaves, which I remember gargling with when I had a sore throat. She drank the tea herself for diarrhea and when she had symptoms of a cold coming on. The tender new plantain leaves she even threw in with the lettuce for a salad come suppertime.
I can also remember helping her making up a batch of plantain oil, which was healing and soothing to the skin. We used to pack dried plantain leaves tightly in a mason jar and cover them with olive oil. We added more leaves every day for the first week and made sure they were covered with the oil. We set the jar back out of direct sunlight for six weeks and then strained the leaves out. It was a soothing remedy for skin damaged by sunburns and rashes. It also took the pain out of poison ivy, which we had plenty of out there on the farm.
Reference: Harris Farmer's Almanac 2018 Gardening Guide.
Ted W. Stillwell will be the featured speaker at 11 this morning at The Heritage House, south side of McCoy Park in Independence.
To reach Ted Stillwell, send an email to Ted@blueandgrey or call him at 816-896-3592.