Plantain

Twelve years ago, as I was walking barefoot in the Catskill Mountains with a friend, enjoying the flowers and the lively conversation, I suddenly felt an excruciating pain. I had stepped on a bee. Immediately, I was flooded with memories of what had happened the last time I’d been stung on the foot: restless nights, plus pain and itching that lasted more than a week. My friend, who was studying herbs with me at the time, suggested plantain, which was growing right there at our feet. I said: “Sure, plantain may be good for mosquito bites, but this is a BEE STING! I don’t think so!”

As the throbbing pain increased during the next few minutes, though, I decided to give plantain a try. I picked a leaf, chewed it up, and put it on the bite. A minute later (to my astonishment), the throbbing and burning had almost completely disappeared! And when the pain began returning about 10 minutes later, I applied a fresh poultice and again experienced immediate relief. The same thing happened half an hour later, then several hours later, then a few more times over the course of the following day. In less than 24 hours, the sting was completely healed.

These days, I no longer dread bee stings. Over the last 12 years, I’ve turned to plantain many times — whenever I, my child, or any of our friends has been stung. And I’ve learned that the sooner we use it, the better. So as soon as someone cries out, one of us goes straight for the plantain — and it’s always just a few steps away.

One of the most widespread “weeds” in the world, plaintain is a first-choice remedy for many skin ailments. It is safe and effective not only for bee stings, but also for bleeding, cuts, bruises, bug bites, hemorrhoids and itchy skin. Its ability to draw out infection — as well as splinters and even glass shards — is nothing short of remarkable.

The easiest way to make a plantain poultice is to chew up the leaf, put it on the wound, and cover it with a bandage to hold it in place. Saliva actually contains many antibacterial properties (which may be why animals lick their wounds). But if a “spit poultice” is not for you, you can chop the plantain with a knife or in the blender with a little water added.

So how do you find plantain? Luckily, it’s one of the three most common plants in lawns, along with dandelion and grass. There are actually two species of plantain that grow in our area: lance-leaved plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and broad-leaved plantain (Plantago major). They can be used interchangeably.

The easiest way to identify plantain (of either type) is by its leaves, which feature parallel veins. Most plants’ leaves have veins that fork outward from the midrib (or central vein). But in plantain leaves, the side veins and midrib all run parallel to one another down to the base of the plant. Plantain doesn’t have showy flowers, but it does have a distinctive, compact seed head that turns from green to brown as the seeds mature. All parts of the plant are edible, including the seeds.

And if you’d like to be able to enjoy plantain’s healing properties year round, it’s easy to make your own plantain oil (see box). Having a supply of this oil on hand will carry you through the winter, when plantain dies back. It also comes in handy when mosquitoes decide to make a meal of your arms and legs. A dozen spit poultices is probably more than anybody wants to make!

My family uses plantain instead of an over-the-counter antibiotic cream. When my 2-year-old hurts himself, he knows where to find plantain. And my heart warms when, as he takes off his poultice a day later, he exclaims delightedly: “Mommy, it’s healed! Plantain made it better!”

Making plantain oil

Choose a dry, sunny day, and harvest the plantain in the afternoon (after the dew has dried). Tightly pack a clean, dry jar full of plantain leaves. Cover with olive oil to the top.

Place the jar out of direct sunlight and let it sit at room temperature for six weeks. Every day for the first week, top off the oil so it completely covers the leaves. After six weeks, strain out the plant material. You now have your own supply of green, medicinal plantain oil!

[Corinna Wood, the director of Red Moon Herbs, has been teaching herbal medicine for more than 10 years. She can be reached at 669-1310 or via her Web site (www.redmoonherbs.com).]

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