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  • Joy Stevens, ND

Not All Plantain Looks Like a Banana

Most people, when they hear the word "plantain," think of the produce aisle item that looks like a banana but isn't really a banana, or is it? Actually, both are members of the Musaceae family and both are members of the genus Musa, but they are different species. Musa paradisiaca, or what we know as plantain, is a cooking banana while Musa sapientum is our dessert banana. But I digress.

Today I want to introduce you to Plantago major, the other plantain. Plantago major is a member of the Plantaginaceae family so it is unrelated to the banana plantain.

Generally thought of as a weed by most, one should consider allowing a bit of it to grow in the garden. However, containment is important. Notice the erect spikes in the photo? Those spikes are covered in hundreds of small seeds thus plantain can quickly get out of control. But it is worth the effort!

For centuries, plantain has been known for its topical wound healing abilities. The leaves contain the compound allantoin which promotes wound healing and induces changes in repair mechanisms that increase the strength of the repaired area. Its phenolic acids and flavonoids are anti-inflammatory and work to reduce swelling and redness. Tannins both kill bacteria and prevent bacterial reproduction thus helping to prevent infection. For treatment of mild wounds, make a poultice of clean young leaves by mashing them in a mortar and pestle or, in a pinch, by chewing them and applying them to the wound.

Perhaps the best use of this plant is to treat bug bites. Plantain is an antipruritic meaning it stops itching. It is also cooling in nature so along with its anti-inflammatory properties, it is perfect for bug bites and stings. Just like for wounds, use it as a poultice. For hikers, knowing how to identify the plant while on the trail and how to use it can make the difference between an enjoyable walk in the woods and one you can't finish quick enough.

Plantain is often used internally for many mouth and gastrointestinal conditions that involve inflammation or excess discharge. It's a mucilage so it soothes irritated mucous membranes and the antibacterial tannins we mentioned earlier are also an astringent to help slow or stop excess discharges such as diarrhea. Yet in large amounts it can have a laxative effect and can be used to treat constipation.

Notice how the leaves resemble the tongue. This plant has a special affinity for conditions involving the mucous membranes of the mouth. We call this the Doctrine of Signatures - that a plant benefits the organ it resembles. Walnuts are prime example. Their high omega 3 fatty acid content is especially good for the brain, improving cognitive function. Who hasn't noticed a walnut looks like a miniature brain?

Plantain is also nutritious. It contains zinc, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamin C. Add young leaves to salads for an extra health benefit. They are mildly bitter and thus will aid in digestion as bitters stimulate the release of stomach acid and digestive enzymes, stimulate the release of bile for fat digestion, and increase peristalsis or movement in the GI tract. Bitters help the entire system run better!

Such a useful plant that is often underappreciated. But no more! Give it a try! Just don't try to dry and save the leaves. The plant loses most of its medicinal activity when dried.

Perhaps the best reason to keep this plant around the house is its

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