Your Guide to the Herb Plantain: How to Identify & Use It

Plantain grows abundantly in yards across the country and is an excellent herb for skin injuries and irritations. Such a useful herb is often right under our noses!

“Mom, my knee hurts where I scraped it last week,” my son told me some years ago.

“Did you wash it out with soap and water like I told you to?”

A quick glance at his infected, almost abscessing wound quickly told me that he didn’t. 

I knew we needed to attend to it quickly or he was looking at medical treatment and a round of antibiotics.

The infection was deep under his skin, so just cleaning the wound topically wouldn’t cut it. No salve or essential oil would bring out the gunk and tighten up his skin tissue, either.

But I knew the herb plantain might. So we grabbed a few leaves from plants growing in our yard and made a fresh poultice, gently tying it on to his knee to see how the wound would respond.

It was amazing.

When I first learned about plantain, I was shocked that such a beneficial herb freely grew all over my yard, in parks everywhere, and in any green area not sprayed for weeds.

In fact, this skin-soothing herb can be found all over the country and on every continent in some variety. Though humble and often overlooked, it’s absolutely an herb that every person needs to know about.

When stings, bug bites, scrapes, and cuts happen, plantain is one of the best herbs to put to use. You can probably find it in any grassy area near you, just waiting to be put to use! 

This guide will help you learn how to identify plantain herb, how to prepare and use it, and how to enjoy its many benefits.

close up of herb plantain

Plantain Herb Basic Information

Botanical Name

Plantago lanceolata (narrowleaf plantain) and P. major (broadleaf plantain) are most widely used as an herbal remedy.

Both species are equally beneficial. In my yard, Plantago major is more abundant, but Plantago lanceolata also grows in a few places. Plantago lanceolata is said to be more widespread across the United States. The two species can be used interchangeably.

However, plantain herb is a completely different plant than the banana-like food also called plantain, which is part of the Musa genus. (This is why botanical names are important when you want to use herbal remedies.) Using the food plantain will not give you the same results as the herb plantain.

Plantain Herb Description

Plantain is very easy to find and identify once you know what to look for.

  • Both plantain varieties grow in rosettes typically close to the ground. If they grow in an unmowed area, they may grow taller.
  • Leaves of both varieties are very green with thick, deep veins that run the length of the leaf. Narrowleaf plantain leaves are long and only about an inch wide or less, while broadleaf plantain has sturdier leaves shaped more like spinach.
  • Both varieties send up tall stalks that first produce tiny flowers and then later seeds. Narrowleaf plantain sends up a more slender stalk and shorter seedhead while broadleaf plantain’s stalk is sturdier and made up of a longer seedhead. 

What Parts of Plantain You Can Use

Plantain leaves are used in herbalism, though old herbals also discuss the roots as ingredients in some remedies.

A related species, Plantago psyllium, is the source of psyllium seeds. These are used in many herbal and wellness products as a bulk fiber laxative to support healthy bowel function. Some sources claim broadleaf and narrowleaf plantain seeds can be also be used for the same purposes, but I haven’t personally done so.

Individual plantain leaves

How to Use the Herb Plantain

Plantain Herbal Actions in the Body

  • Plantain is a beneficial vulnerary, which means that it helps the skin heal from wounds.
  • It is anti-inflammatory and this action also helps to improve irritated, inflamed, or otherwise injured tissue.
  • Plantain’s antimicrobial properties also promote skin health and are beneficial during wound care.
  • It contains mucilage, so it can soothe irritated tissues both topically as an emollient and internally as a demulcent.
  • Interestingly, it is also an astringent herb, tightening and firming body tissues.

Suggested Plantain Herbal Preparations

Plantain is most frequently used in infused oils that are used as is or turned into balms and salves, like this plantain salve. Because it is so beneficial for injured or irritated skin, these preparations are often ideal. The dried herb is most often used for infused oils since fresh herb can leave you with moisture (and mold) in the final product. 

When you need immediate help from plantain, like after a bug bite or sting, a simple plantain poultice can greatly improve the irritation. You can make one by crushing, mashing, or even chewing the fresh leaves, placing them over the affected area, and gently securing with a clean cloth (if possible). For best results, change the poultice every 15-30 minutes until the irritation is gone.

You will feel very earthy if you make a plantain poultice by chewing the leaves. Yes, I’ve done it, and yes it works incredibly well!

You can also prepare plantain as an herbal infusion. Use 1-2 teaspoons of dried herb (or 1-2 tablespoons fresh), then steep it in 1 cup of freshly boiled water for 15-30 minutes. This can be taken internally for digestive upsets or respiratory concerns, or used topically for wounds, rashes, and burns. You can also add leaves directly added to bathwater for an herbal bath soak.

Plantain is edible, but the leaf veins are quite fibrous. Some people add fresh plantain herb leaves to smoothies to help mask the texture and strong green flavor.

Safety Considerations for the Herb Plantain

Plantain is safe for infants, children, the elderly, and both pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.

Learning about plantain is a great first step to appreciating its usefulness, especially since it grows everywhere, is wonderfully effective, and beautifully safe for everyone. But there’s nothing like seeing it really go to work.

When we took the fresh plantain leaf poultice off my son’s infected knee, I was completely blown away by what I saw. All of the deep pus (gross, I know) was gone and the red, infected tissue was tight and pink. After just one application.

I had never seen an herbal remedy, let alone such a simple one, bring about such drastic results so quickly.

We followed up with a thorough wound cleaning, some skin-soother salve (containing plantain, of course), and a reminder on the importance of soap when washing. His knee healed perfectly after that, and I’m pretty sure he never ignored my advice to clean a scrape again!

If you enjoyed learning about plantain, be sure to check out The Herb Study Notebook for an easier way to know your herbs inside and out and keep all of your learning in one organized place.

References

Affiliate links are included. If you purchase, your cost is the same while I can earn a commission.

Culpeper, Nicholas. Stephen Foster, Ed. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. Sterling: New York. 2019. (found on Amazon)

Fritchey, Philip. Practical Herbalism. Whitman Publications: Warsaw, Indiana. 2004. (found on Amazon)

Easley, Thomas & Stephen Horne. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory: A Medicine-Making Guide. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, California. 2016. (found on Amazon and Bookshop)

Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism. Healing Arts Press: Rochester, Vermont. 2003. (found on Amazon and Bookshop).

Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: Volume One. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, California. 2008. (found on Amazon and Bookshop)

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    11 Comments

    1. Plantain is my absolute favorite go-to plant. Both varieties grow like crazy here, and I always gather some to dry for salve and tea. Not too long after I first learned about it, we were heading out to church on Sunday morning, when my daughter was stung by a wasp. I grabbed some plantain from the yard, chewed it, and put it on the sting. By the time we got to church (less than five minutes) the pain and much of the swelling was gone!

      1. Hi Elsie! You could use a plantain poultice on a fresh cut if you needed to treat it temporarily before getting it washed and bandaged. It won’t stop bleeding like yarrow will, but it can soothe pain and inflammation until you can treat it more thoroughly.

    2. I am sorry I just don’t see a good reason to use items that require a expensive essential oil to make a product I can get at the store cheaper not to mention the work involved.

      1. Hi Timothy. I’m not sure what exactly you’re referring to. This post doesn’t talk about essential oils. I do mention infused oils, but that’s when you take an herb and infuse it into a fixed oil like olive, coconut, or avocado oil. Feel free to post a follow-up question if I can help clear something up for you.