The Indians called it "White Man's Foot" because plantain grows everywhere the white man walked. It is a true weed, like dandelion, that loves disturbed soil. It is tasty in salads; the young leaves have a slightly nutty flavor. It's real value, however, is a healing herb for wounds. In emergency situations it is often easy to find plantain plants and to make a tea for poultices and wound dressings. Here are three examples of plantain treatment, provided by my nurse wife Sara.
In the first case Sara treated a male rabbit that had abdominal surgery (neutering), but the rabbit had torn open its incision and become quite infected by the time the rabbit was brought in for treatment. Sara gathered fresh plantain leaves and prepared a tea, and flushed out the abdomen. The hole was large enough to hold more than a half cup of tea. She kept the bedding clean, and flushed out the wound twice a day. At the end of the seventh day, the wound had closed with no infection and fur was starting to grow on the new tissue.
The second case was on a grade school trip to Chicken. Chicken is on the Taylor Highway, 80 miles northeast of Tok. It is more than 7 hours to an Anchorage hospital by road. One of the students presented an infected foot wound, complete with red streaks running up her leg (an indication of blood poisoning). The student had let the wound go because she was afraid that she might be sent home if she told anyone. Sara again gathered fresh plantain for steeping, washed the wound, and dressed it with a wet poultice made from the leaves. By morning the redness and pus were gone, as well as the red streaks. The wound healed without infection in about a week.
The third case involved a woman who stepped on a nail in a board. The nail went through the sole of her boot and deep into the ball of the foot. This happened in a barn with horses, so the risk of tetanus was high. The woman however had had a tetanus shot within 10 years and refused to go to the ER for another shot or treatment, which might have been advisable. Sara suggested she soak the foot in hot plantain tea. The woman reported within a half hour that the pain and swelling had subsided and bits of rubber boot and sock were in the pan. She healed quickly, which is very unusual for a deep puncture wound.
Antibiotics would be an important part of the standard medical treatment in all of the examples above, but antibiotics aren't always immediately available or acceptable to injury victims, so plantain is a good place to start.
Sara began her career as an Army nurse in the Vietnam War, and had to treat some of the nastiest wounds of war, such as napalm and shrapnel. After treating the rabbit she was convinced that she would have done a whole lot better with the patients in Vietnam if she had had a supply of plantain to work with in addition to antibiotics.
Jan Schofield in her book Discovering "Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, the Northwest" (1989) discusses the medicinal uses of plantain in detail. This herb appears to be "good for what ails ye," as the old expression has it. Plantain poultices are said to be good for leg ulcers, nettle stings, burns, abscesses, insect and snake bites, poison ivy, eczema, and hemorrhoids. Plantain seeds (aka psyllium seeds) are used as a laxative because of they swell up with water and provide bulk in the gut. Plantain has been used to cure earaches, and Alexander the Great is reported to have used plantain to cure headaches. In the Middle Ages plantain was smoked and hung in barns on the summer solstice to protect against evil.
The easiest place to find plantain is usually along a road edge, but this is not a good place to gather it for eating or medicinal use because of toxic materials coming off the road surface. Lawns that have not been sprayed for weeds are probably the most dependable spot for collection. Although plantain is great for emergencies, you may not be able to find it the backcountry when you need it, if the area has not experienced the tread of the "white man's foot."
Plantain salve is commercially available, but it is not a bad idea to have some dried plantain leaves tucked away in the first aid kit. There are many wonderful plantain stories on the Internet, and a Google search on "plantain salve" will bring up recipes for home preparation.
Ed Berg has been the ecologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge since 1993. Ed will be teaching his weekly 1-credit "Geology of Kachemak Bay" course at the Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna and Homer, starting September 1 & 2, respectively.
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Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on the refuge website, http://kenai.fws.gov/. You can check on local birds or report your bird sighting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Birding Hotline at 907-262-2300.
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