How does it feel?
There is little scent to either plant. Initially the dried herbs have a slightly mucilaginous, sweet taste which on further chewing develops to an astringency with bitter undertones.
What can I use it for?
Greater plantain is generally considered to be superior for topical use, whilst ribwort excels within the tissues of the lungs.
Both species can be used for their healing, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties in cases of mild bronchitis, cystitis, sinusitis, allergic rhinitis, catarrh, ear infections or gastric inflammation.
Ribwort can also be of good benefit following acute lung infections to assist the respiratory tract to heal. The tannin content in the leaves makes them useful in the form of a strong tea in cases of diarrhoea.
Sometimes called the Green sticking plaster, greater plantain is used topically to very good effect in different preparations on such presentations as insect bites, wounds, sunburn, stings, ulcers, rashes and haemorrhoids.
A quick first aid method when in the field is to pick a couple of leaves and chew them to make a ‘spit poultice’. The watery saliva mixes with the mucilage in the leaf and creates a gel that will help the leaf stick to the area creating a bandage/sticking plaster. Ensure you are confident in your identification of the two plantains before trying this!
If using as an eye wash, as always, the advice is to use sterilised equipment and filter the infusion through a double layer of muslin or an unbleached paper coffee filter.
It is far better to use a mashed leaf or two of either of these trusty plants for a painful nettle sting than that of a dock leaf.
Into the heart of Greater plantain and ribwort
The iridoid glycosides, mucilages and tannins are some of the key players in the medicinal actions of both plants, which have been prized remedies for a variety of conditions for many hundreds of years.
There is a plethora of different modes of administering this most useful of duos, including infusions, syrups, gargles, salves, compresses, liniments, enemas, suppositories, douches, eye, ear and nasal irrigations.
Promising work on the healing and styptic (an agent that helps to stop bleeding) abilities of greater plantain have shown there is good potential for use in the wider health management of pressure ulcers, diabetic foot ulcers and even postpartum haemorrhage.
Refer to the Evidence section for further detail and references.
Documentation of the use of greater plantain in wound healing goes back to Dioscorides.
Medicinal plantains, including greater plantain and ribwort continue to be used in many parts of the world today for a wide range in indications.
Despite greater plantain being an introduced species to North America, it was adopted as an effective wound healer by Native Americans, who called it White man’s footprint, referring to the wide leaves and spread of the plant wherever Europeans went.
Whilst both species are used for tissue healing, greater plantain has been used extensively to swiftly stop bleeding from external injury.
Ribwort and greater plantain have a tradition of interchangeable uses in a variety of conditions including toothache, earache, oral ulcers, gum disease, tonsillitis and internally for lung infections and inflammation.
Traditionally used within the digestive tract for internal bleeding, ulceration and haemorrhoids and within the urinary tract for urinary retention, blood in the urine and bladder or kidney pain.
Both species were valued for prevention of festering wounds, splinters and boils when used as drawing agents.
Anti-inflammatory herbs reduce inflammation in the body. There are different systems in the body that anti-inflammatory plants target. For example for the gastrointestinal tract chamomile, fenugreek and meadowsweet are useful. For the musculoskeletal system rosehips, turmeric and celery seed are useful. For inflammation against immune mediated inflammation gotu kola (centella asiatica), rehmannia (rehmannia glutinosa) and feverfew (tanacetum parthenium) can be useful.Antimicrobial
Antimicrobials are herbs that interfere with the proliferation and life-cycle of microbes; bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Examples include Thyme leaf (Thymus vulgaris), Echinacea (Echinacea species), Elderberry (Sambucus nigra).Antioxidant
Antioxidant substances that protects against oxidation and degradation from free radical damage. Plants rich in antioxidant include bacopa (bacopa monnieri), bilberry (vaccinium myrtillus), green tea (camelia sinensis) and thyme (thymus vulgaris).Demulcents
Demulcents are soothing mucilaginous and silky herbs that can be taken internally to soothe and protect damaged or inflamed tissue. Examples include Slippery elm bark (Ulmus rubra), Marshmallow root (Althea officinalis) and Limeflower (Tilia cordata).Expectorants
Expectorants are herbs that assist the body in expelling mucus from the upper respiratory tract. Examples include Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Elecampane root (Inula helenium) and Thyme leaf (Thymus vulgaris).Vulneraries
Vulneraries are wound-healing herbs used internally and externally. Astringent herbs such as Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) and Shepherd’s Purse leaf (Capsella bursa-pastoris) directly stop bleeding and promote the formation of an eschar (scab). Mucilaginous herbs such as Plantain leaf (Plantago lanceolata) and Selfheal leaf (Prunella vulgaris) soothe inflammation. Some vulneraries are used internally to speed tissue healing, including Marigold flower (Calendula officinalis), Plantain leaf (Plantago lanceolata), Selfheal leaf (Prunella vulgaris), and Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis).
What practitioners say
Skin: Greater plantain is usually preferred for topical use, although both species can be used. Often applied on the form of salves for wounds, bruises, ulcers, shingles and dry, inflamed skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
The soothing effects mean it can also be useful when added to topical preparations containing strong essential oils to help moderate any potential irritant effect, such as with a strong sinus rub.
The chopped and soaked leaves or the fresh juice can be used as a speedy remedy for healing wounds. It is sometimes combined with yarrow in staunching bleeding.
Respiratory: Ribwort is useful in coughs, sore throats, respiratory infections and for strengthening the integrity of the mucous membranes of the lungs, providing anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects. It is best used for coughs and colds taken as a hot infusion with a bit of honey. It can also be combined with yarrow and elderflower in such cases.
Digestive and urinary systems: The mucilage and tannin and content within both plants can go some way to explaining why they are often used for chronic or acute irritation of the mucous membrane linings of the digestive and urinary tracts.
Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and cytotoxic effects have been noted in ribwort using a variety of assays, including enhancement of lymphocyte production, secretion of interferon-gamma, inhibitory activity on proliferation of lymphoma and certain carcinomas and viruses at lower dose extracts (1,2).
Extracts of both greater plantain and ribwort have revealed the antioxidant properties remain on storing, with greater plantain revealing an increase in antioxidant activity after storage for 6 months (3).
One randomised triple blinded 14 day clinical trial on 130 patients was carried out on the use of greater plantain in the treatment of pressure ulcers. The findings indicated a significant difference in resolution of the wound damage between the test and control groups at 96% and 73% respectively (4).
A randomised open-label controlled trial on the use of a hydroalcoholic extract (10% topical gel) of greater plantain on diabetic foot ulcers and pressure ulcers resulted in the acceleration of diabetic foot ulcer healing both in reduction of erythema and wound size (5).
The effects of rectal suppositories of greater plantain on postpartum haemorrhage were looked at in a recent randomised triple blinded clinical trial. The work demonstrated a statistically significant difference between with the group given dill (anethum graveolens) and the control group compared to those given the greater plantain-containing suppositories, showing this method of administration can help reduce postpartum haemorrhage (6).
Did you know?
Used as a vegetable both plants have good levels of vitamins A,C and K and calcium. The young, smaller leaves can be eaten fresh, sautéed or steamed, while the older ones should perhaps be ignored for culinary purposes as they are a bit tough and stringy.
One of greater plantain’s older names was White man’s foot, coined because the plant was said to spread far and wide during colonial times being carried in the trouser turn-ups of Europeans.
It was all the rage to cultivate a number of ‘monstrous developmental mutant’ versions of greater plantain in seventeenth century gardens. They were bred to have very large, branched flower spikes. Such mutations may sometimes be seen today in populations of greater plantain treated with sub-lethal doses of herbicides.
Ribwort Plantain flower heads when recently turned brown can be used to make a mushroom-flavoured stock. They are also the source of a game used by children where the flower heads are used as ‘pop guns’ by wrapping the stem around the flower head and pinging them off in the direction of a chum.
Native to Europe and Asia but spread far and wide, greater plantain and ribwort are two of around 250 species of annuals, biennials perennials within the genus Plantago.
Both are perennial, pollinated by the wind and also capable of self-fertilisation. The seeds of these two plants become mucilaginous (slimy) when wet and can adhere to animals to aid dispersal. It is worth keeping one or two in the garden to encourage wild-life, as their seeds can provide winter feed for song birds.
The leaves and aerial parts are used medicinally. Harvest during the summer when flowering.
Greater plantain: This plant loves compacted soil and is fond of growing in soil-disturbed habitats, near human activity & waste places. Greater plantain is a squat plant, possessing a basal rosette of long-stemmed, spoon-shaped leaves with prominent fibrous veins that grow up to 15 cm in length.
Tiny inconspicuous yellow-green flowers are borne on long cylindrical spikes in the summer. It grows to a height of 40 cm with a similar spread. An individual plant produces up to 20,000 seeds and can become quite invasive if left to its own devices. The seeds can remain viable in undisturbed soil for 20 years or so.
Ribwort: A plant of grasslands, road-sides and cultivated ground, ribwort grows up to a height of 50 cm with a spread of 20 cm. Also forms a rosette but whose leaves are more slender, ribbed and lance-shaped.
The plant tends to grow taller in meadows and more squat in short turf. A pointed head of small, tightly clustered brown flowers with creamy-white stamens are borne on hairy, square-shaped stems from April to October. An average plant can produce between 2,500 and 10,000 seeds in the right conditions.
There are other medicinal species within the genus including Hoary plantain (Plantago media), Sea plantain (Plantago maritima), Blond psyllium seed/ ispaghul (Plantago ovata) and Dark /Flea seed (Plantago psyllium).
None of these are related to the tropical banana-like plantain fruit.
- Greater plantain
- Broad-leaved plantain
- Rat tails
- Cuckoo’s bread
- Cart track plant
- Dooryard plantain
- White man’s foot
- Cat’s cradle
- Chimney sweeps
- Narrow-leaved plantain
- Jack straws
Greater plantain and ribwort are considered to be very safe remedies, including during pregnancy and lactation and for use in children.
No known contraindications unless sensitive to either of these two species.
Internal use: 3-5g dried herb one to three times daily
2 heaped teaspoons to a cupful boiling water as infusion. Three times daily.
3-8 ml per day 1:3 tincture
Fresh juice 5 – 15 ml three times daily
Or topically as required in the form of a salve, poultice, wash, plaster etc.
Plant parts used
The leaves and aerial parts are used medicinally. Harvest during the summer when flowering.
- Iridoid glycosides including aucubin, catalpol
- Flavonoids including apigenin, luteolin, hispidulin, baicalein, scutallarein and plantaginin
- Polysaccharides mucilage
- Phenolic acid derivatives
- Alkaloids Indicain and plantagonin
- Vitamins and minerals including zinc and silica, the latter more so in ribwort
Greater plantain salve
- 2 cups dried and chopped greater plantain leaves either bought or if collected in the wild, ensure from an area free from pesticides or pollution.
- 500ml olive or grapeseed oil
- Place the dried herb into a double boiler and cover with the oil. Heat over a very low temperature for around three to four hours stirring occasionally. The water under the bowl should be barely simmering. The temperature should be approximately 40˚C.
- Now it is time to strain the herbs out using some muslin cloth.
- Squeeze as much of the oil out of the muslin as possible and pop the spent plantain onto the compost heap.
- Any excess oil can be decanted into a clean jam jar and left in a dark place for future use.
- Pour 250ml of the strained infused oil back into the double boiler over gently simmering water and add 28-30g beeswax pearls to melt.
- Pour into small sterilised ointment jars while the mix is still liquid and allow to cool before capping and labelling, not forgetting to add the date made.
- Should last for a good year or so.
- As with anything new to you, try a little on a small area of heathy skin before slathering in case of allergic reaction.
Ribwort seed pudding
- 1 Litre of milk (plant or dairy)
- 4 thinly pared strips of lemon zest
- Additionally the grated zest of a whole lemon
- 80g ribwort seeds, while still unripe/ green
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp honey
- 80g caster sugar
- 3 egg yolks
- Dollop of your favourite jam
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C
- Put the milk and 4 strips of lemon zest into a pan bring just to a boil and reduce heat to gently simmer for 2 mins.
- Scoop the peel out and add the ribwort seeds. Continue to cook, stirring for 30 mins or so by which time the seeds will have started to thicken the milk.
- Remove pan from heat and stir in the honey, grated lemon zest, lemon juice and sugar.
- Beat the egg yolks, combine with a little of the mix from the pan and then add back to the pan and stir vigorously for a couple of minutes. Pour into an oven proof dish and bake for 40 mins.
- Remove from the oven and dot the jam over the top
- Beara, I etc al (2012): Comparative analysis of phenolic profile, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cytotoxic activity of two closely-related Plantain species: Plantago altissima L. and Plantago lanceolata L. LWT – Food Science and Technology. 47 (64-70)
- Chiang, LC et al (2003): In vitro cytotoxic, antiviral and immunomodulatory effects of Plantago major and Plantago asiatica. American journal of Chinese Medicine. 31. 2 (225-234).
- Gajewska, S etc al (2021): Effect of storage on the antioxidant properties of Plantago lanceolata L. and Plantago major L. alcoholic extracts. Pomeranian journal of Life Sciences 67. 4
- Ghiasian, M et al (2021): Clinical and phytochemical studies of Plantago major in pressure ulcer treatment: a randomized controlled trial. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2021.101325
- Ghanadian, M at al (2022): The Effect of Plantago major Hydroalcoholic Extract on the Healing of Diabetic Foot and Pressure Ulcers: A Randomized Open-Label Controlled Clinical Trial. The International Journal of Lower Extremity Wounds. https://doi.org/10.1177/15347346211070723
- Zahra K et al (2021): The effects of rectal suppositories of Plantago major and Anetheum graveolens on postpartum haemorrhage: A randomized triple blinded clinical trial. Journal of Herbal medicine. Vol 32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hermed.2021.100526
- https://ascensionkitchen.com/plantain-salve/. Accessed February 2022.
- Nozedar, A: The Hedgerow Handbook. Recipes, Remedies and Rituals.(2012) Square Peg publishers. ISB9780224086714