Materia Medica: Plantain

SUMMARY

Commonly considered a weed, Plantain is abundant in lawns and fields in spring and summer throughout the Northeast. This humble plant is a medicinal powerhouse offering multiple benefits for digestive, respiratory, and urinary systems as well as topical applications.

MATERIA MEDICA

Latin Binomials: (Plantago major, P. lanceolata, P. Psyllium; Plantago asiatica primarily used in Chinese medicine)

Common Names:  Plantain, ribwort, white man’s footprint, rabbit ears

TCM Name: Che Qian Cao, Che Qian Zi (seeds)

Meridians/Organs affected: bladder, small intestine, gall bladder)

Ayurvedic NamesTamil‎: ‎Ishappukol vitai, Hindi‎: ‎Lahuriya, Luhuriya, Urdu‎: ‎bartang

 Family: Plantaginaceae

Physical Description of the Plant: Greater plantain is usually perennial, with a short rootstock set with long fibrous roots and five to seven-veined leaves arranged in a basal rosette. Each plant grows long, upright or ascending flower stems carrying cylindrical spikes densely covered with flowers. The yellow anthers hang conspicuously from the small yellowish-green flowers to facilitate wind pollination. The style protrudes from the flower long before flowering to prevent self-pollination. The outer coat of the small seeds swells up and becomes sticky when moistened, so they are readily distributed by man and animal. It blooms from May to August.

Habitat: Native to Europe and temperate regions of Asia, plantain is widely naturalized throughout the world. It is commonly referred to as “whiteman’s footprint” as it followed the spread of western culture through colonialization.

Harvest and Collection: Common plantain a perennial to zone 2. It is normally wildcrafted.. The leaves are gathered throughout the summer before flowering. Two to four harvests are possible annually.

Parts Used: leaf and seeds. Husks for P. psyllium.

Qualities: relaxing expectorant, tonifies mucous membranes, reduces phlegm; antispasmodic, topically healing, diuretic, alterative, astringent, refrigerant, vulnerary.

Chemical Constituents: Iridoid glycosides (aucubin, catalpol); tannins; polysaccharides (galactose, glucose, xylose, arabnose, and rhamnose IE mucilage); alkaloids (plantagonine, asperuloside); flavonoids (baicalein, apigenin, scutellarin, nepetin, hispidulin, luteolin, plantagoside), sugars, triterpenes, linoleic acid, tannins, iroids, silica, plant acids, and mucilage. Aucubin increases uric acid excretion by the kidneys; apigenin is anti-inflammatory. Also provides beta carotene and calcium.

Actions:

Diuretic: Plantain is a highly effective diuretic used in flushing treatments for the kidneys and urinary tract and the treatment of urinary tract infections. The combination of demulcent and astringent makes it beneficial for urinary tract infections marked by heat, inflammation, dryness and bleeding, where the mucosal membranes are irritated and need a soothing action. In this way it helps to increase the tone of the mucosal membranes, but also helps to sooth, cool and moisten them up. Thus it could be seen as both a relaxant/demulcent diuretic, as well as a tonic/astringent diuretic.

Astringent/Vulnerary: This is likely the most widely used action found in Plantain. The astringency helps to staunch bleeding in cuts, scrapes, and other types of bleeding wounds topically, but can also stop bleeding internally as well. For internal bleeding it works best on the urinary tract, but could also be applied to the digestive system as well. One of the unique things about Plantain is that while it is astringent and drying on one hand, it is also demulcent, soothing, and moistening on the other.

Demulcent: This is one of our great demulcent remedies for treating dry conditions in the mucosal membranes lining the urinary tract, respiratory and digestive systems. The demulcent property of Plantain comes out best in fresh preparations of the plant as compared to dried leaves, which I find are a bit more astringent. Again this combination of demulcent with astringency makes Plantain a highly unique medicine, and these two actions makes it quite specific for tissues that are bleeding and need astringency, but are also dry, atrophic, and cracking and thus need the soothing qualities of a demulcent. It contains a wide variety of polysaccharides which are responsible for its demulcent properties, as well as a slight immunostimulation.

Inflammation Modulating: This is a fantastic remedy for treating inflammatory conditions in the organ systems of which it is specific for, most notably the urinary, respiratory and digestive systems, and of course topically. It is a quite specific for the heat/excitation tissue state in these systems. Again the term “inflammation modulating” is preferable to “anti-inflammatory” as most herbal medicines do not completely shut down the bodies inflammatory processes, but rather slightly adjusts them so they are not overly expressed. It’s critical in our model of holistic herbalism to realize that inflammation is a critical and necessary intelligent response of the body and a vital healing process.

Antiseptic: Plantain contains a small handful of constituents which have exhibited antiseptic properties making it beneficial in the treatment of infections. It can be used for old infections that have never fully cleared. It is most commonly used topically in this regard, but also has applications for internal infections as well- most often in the urinary tract, but can also be used in the respiratory and digestive systems as well. While some constituents are directly antiseptic, it’s also worth noting that the variety of polysaccharides present in the leaves also exert a local immunostimulant property, as these sugar compounds can mimic the proteins present on pathogenic antigens that the immune system responds to.

Moistening Expectorant: This remedy is a highly useful expectorant for the lungs which is primarily due to its demulcent property. In this regard it is specifically used for dry coughs and is likely contraindicated in a predominantly wet cough. As such, it can be used in formulation with other demulcent expectorants or combined with more stimulant expectorants to make them a bit less harsh.

Indications: Common plantain quickly staunches blood flow and encourages the repair of damaged tissue. It may be used instead of comfrey in treating bruises and broken bones, all types of cuts, scrapes, lacerations, puncture wounds (though St. John’s Wort might be better here), stings, insect bites, and all other open skin injuries. This makes it a most important first aid remedy and should be the first plant used in any type of venomous snake bite, poisonous spider bites (brown recluse, black widow etc.), and tick bites, to more mild ones such as mosquito bites, poison ivy or poison oak rashes and bee stings.

Traditional Chinese medicine uses plantain to treat urinary problems, dysentery, hepatitis and lung problems, especially asthma and bronchitis. The seeds are used for bowel ailments.

Contraindications/Cautions: There are no known contraindications with Plantain, although some people do have allergic reactions from the ingestion of psyllium husks. The primary energetic property of plantain is cooling, so it should be avoided in constitutions or tissue states marked by an excess of cold.

Drug Interactions: Plantain has been shown to possibly decrease the absorption of lithium through the gastrointestinal tract. This interaction was due to ingestion of the husk of Plantago psyllium as a bulking laxative. There is a theoretical interaction of Warfarin antagonism due to the relative amount of Vitamin K found in Plantain leaves, which would increase the potential for coagulation.

Tastes: Plantain has a primarily bitter taste, with combinations of astringency and a sweet/ mucilaginous flavor. These tastes indicate an action and affinity for the mucosal membranes of the body and the digestive apparatus. It’s always interesting to find plants that are equally astringent and mucilaginous, revealing a unique combination of drying and moistening properties which is somewhat rare in medicinal plants.

 Dosage:

Tincture: Make from fresh leaves if possible. Good for heavy mucus, as in allergic rhinitis, or if astringency is needed. Use a mid-range alcohol to water menstruum, 50% alcohol at a 1:3 ratio- stronger if possible. Dosage can range from small (1-5 drops), up to larger amounts (2-3 mL).

Poultice: Apply fresh leaves to bee stings and slow-healing wounds; a simple spit poultice has always been found to be highly effective.

Salve: The fresh or dried leaves are commonly prepared as an infused oil which is used as a base for many topical salves. Simply infuse an oil via a double boiler with enough oil to cover the plant material and gently heat for a few hours. Strain and add enough beeswax to make a soft consistency salve. It is oftentimes combined with other topical vulneraries such as Comfrey (Symphytum officinalis), Calendula (Calendula officinalis), and St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum). Apply to wounds, burns and hemorrhoids.

Infusion: The fresh or dried leaves can be prepared as an infusion to be drunk as a tea for respiratory and urinary tract complaints. It can also be steeped with clean cloth soaked in the tea to be used as a topical liniment for injury. Michael Moore states that a cold infusion is the preferred method of preparation. Standard dosage range for water based extracts would be 1 tbsp per 8 oz of water.

Homeopathic Uses: Plantago major is used for earache, toothache, and eye pain due to tooth decay or ear infection. Also used to treat pyorrhea, depression, and insomnia. It causes an aversion to tobacco.

Combinations: Plantain combines very nicely with Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)  and Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) to staunch blood flow and heal tissues. For infection it works well with Uva-Ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia). If there is lymphatic swelling it combines nicely with Cleavers (Galium aparine) and Red Clover (Trifolium pratense).

It combines well with other expectorants such as Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa), and can also be used to mellow out more stimulating expectorants such as Osha (Ligusticum porteri), Elecampane (Inula helenium), and Lomatium (Lomatium dissectum).

It combines very nicely with Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Myrrh (Commiphora molmol), and Spilanthes (Spilanthes oleracea) for the treatment of dental infections and general maintenance of the teeth and gums. For acute toothache it combines nicely with St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), Kava-Kava (Piper methysticum), and Clove (Syzygium aromaticum).

Energetics: slightly sweet, salty, and bitter; cool

Temperature, Moisture and Tone: The energetic effects of Plantain are primarily cooling, as it has a predominant bitter flavor which drains excess heat from the tissues

Folklore: Plantain roots are an old-time cure for toothaches. The Iroquois used the fresh leaves to treat wounds, as well as coughs, colds, and bronchitis. The Shoshone applied poultices made from the entire plant to battle bruises, while the Meskawaki treated fevers with a tea made from the root. The Chippewa used plantain leaves to draw out splinters from inflamed skin, and as vulnerary poultices. They favored the fresh leaves, spreading the surface of these with bear grease before applying them. In Navajo medicine the plant is used to treat many internal problems: indigestion, stomachache, heartburn, venereal disease, and loss of appetite. Plantain is also found in African and southeast Asian folk medicine.  An herb of Venus, Plantain was an important element in numerous charms and love divinations in ancient traditions.

Flower Essence:  Plantain flower essence helps release bitterness and resentment and improves self-esteem and inner contentment. It dissolves negative and repetitive thought patterns that keep you stuck in old cycles.  This is the flower essence for the integration and the sacred marriage of the inner male and female energies.

Applications: Plantain is valuable for its action upon the mucosal membranes of the urinary, respiratory and digestive systems. It enhances secretions and stimulates the activity of the mucosa while cleansing and disinfecting them.

Urinary Tract: This remedy is a wonderful relaxant diuretic, demulcent, antiseptic, and inflammation modulating remedy for the treatment of urinary tract infections.

Respiratory System: Plantain is an effective demulcent expectorant and antiseptic for the treatment of respiratory tract infections.

Digestive System: The vulnerary action makes Plantain one of our great healing remedies for the digestive system, including ulcerations, inflammations, infections, and leaky gut syndrome.

Teeth, Mouth, and Gums: Plantain has been effectively used for a long time in the treatment of dental problems, most notably the infection and nerve pain that often accompanies it. The astringency, demulcent, antiseptic, and drawing actions are highly beneficial for dental issues.

Skin: This is perhaps the most important topical remedy for all manner skin wounds and injuries.

Recipes

Revitalizing Green Juice:
Cups fresh plantain leaves
1 cup pure liquid honey
Crush the leaves in a food processor, drain and squeeze in cheesecloth. Combine 1 cup of the green juice with the honey and simmer for 10 minutes at low heat, stirring regularly. Let cool and pour into an opaque bottle. Take this nectar 1 spoonful at a time like a syrup to treat a cough, sore throat, fatigue and eczema. 1 Tbsp 3 times daily.

Tonic for Bites, Poison Ivy
½ cup chopped plantain
½ cup chopped lemon balm
½ cup chopped comfrey leaves
½ cup chopped borage leaves
4 cup boiling water
4 cups witch hazel
Make herb water: Combine herbs in large pot with a lid. Pour boiling water over, and cover with lid. Allow to stand 15 minutes. Strain liquid into sterilized jar, seal and store in refrigerator. Herb water keeps up to 3 weeks. Make tonic: Mix 12/ cup of herb water and ½ cup witch hazel. Store in refrigerator. Rub afflicted skin liberally with cotton dipped in tonic or soak swatches of cotton in tonic and lay over skin. Reapply as often as required. (Recipes from Riversong)

Plantain skin tonic:
Fill a saucepan with the leaves and add the juice of a lemon and 1 pint of water. Simmer for 20 minutes, strain and when cool, add a fluid ounce of witch hazel. Bottle and keep under refrigeration.

 Scientific Research

Research in India has shown its beneficial effects in treating coughs and colds.

References

http://www.herbalpedia.com/blog/?p=180

http://www.evolutionaryherbalism.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Plantain-Plantago-major.pdf

Hoffman, D. (1996).  The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal.  Element Books LTD.

Fetrow, Charles & Juan Avila (2000).  The Complete Guide to Herbal Medicines.  New York, NY: Pocket Books.

Ody, Penelope (1993).  The Complete Medicinal Herbal.  New York, New York: Dorling Kindersley.

Gladstar, Rosemary (2012).  Medicinal Herbs. A beginner's guide. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.

Groves, Maria Noel (2016).  Body into Balance.  North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.

McIntyre, Anne (2010).  The Complete Herbal Tutor.  London, England: Hatchet Company.

 

Mimi Alberu