I’m not particularly interested in herbalism and the medicinal value of wild plants. I’m into foraging for the food. My outlook on medicine is strictly science-based and chemically liberal, so if there’s a perfectly good drug I can get at the pharmacy, I tend not to bother with plants. But to be prejudicial of herbal medicine for not being science-y enough is foolish. Many of the same chemicals that we buy in bottles are available in plants. Aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, which was originally consumed in willow bark tea to reduce fevers and pain. One of my favorite cold and allergy remedies is Mucinex, which is guaifenesin. It was first obtained from the guaiac tree, native to the Americas. I’ve found that the natural antispasmodic in peppermint works far better than any prescription medicine I’ve received for resolving my evil chronic intestinal issues.
I became interested in the medicinal uses of the common weed plantain (plantago) after an encounter with at least eight hives of angry bees. During a hot day on a bike tour, Eric insisted on a detour to the river. A gravel road passing by a large field of flowering mustard looked like our best route. I had no idea that farmers bring stacks of beehives to pollinate mustard. Have you ever heard of mustard honey? (If you used it to make dressing, would it be mustard honey mustard?) The bees got caught under our bike helmets, under our shirts, and in the netting of our gloves. Yes, it hurt, in many places. After a day, Eric’s hand swelled spectacularly. Topical Benadryl failed to reduce the inflammation, so we succumbed to his mother’s insistence that we mush up plantain leaves and tape a poultice to his hand. His mother chews up the plantain to make it mushy. There’s no time to waste when you’ve got a wailing child with a sting, she says, but we’re adults and use a mortar and pestle. (I tried chewing it. Plantain is bitter and gross.) Supposedly, the plant mush can “draw out the sting.” I didn’t know how that worked and I was doubly doubtful it would have any effect since we waited until more than 24 hours after the bee incident. Nevertheless, the swelling in Eric’s hand was visibly reduced by nighttime.
Since I’ve seen proof that plantain works, I need to know how it works. Plantain contains aucubin, which is anti-inflammatory, and allantoin, which promotes healing and cell regeneration. Now that I understand the scienceness of plantain, I will use it and recommend it.
You almost certainly have some variety of plantain growing in your yard, unless you’re one of those creepy neighbors pouring gallons of water, fertilizers, and pesticides into your perfect grass lawn (STOP DOING THAT!). This map shows the range of plantain varieties. I see a lot of narrowleaf and broadleaf (or common) plantain in Portland. I think plantain is best identified by the strong fibers that run from the base of the leaves to the end. These leaves grow in what’s called a basal rosette, or a the leaves grow around a center point in a circle.