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Both plantain species have longstanding reputations as efficient tissue healers

Greater Plantain and Ribwort

Plantago major and Plantago lanceolata Plantaginaceae

Greater and ribwort plantain are humble, familiar weeds that have been used as traditional wound healing remedies for centuries. Used both internally and topically they continue to play a very important role in modern herbalism for the treatment of an array of conditions supporting as they do, the health of the mucous membranes and skin.

Sustainability status

Not currently on risk lists but complete data may be missing on the status of the species. Commonly cultivated though may be sourced from the wild. Only source cultivated supplies or from certified sustainable wild collection. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Potential replacement(s): Hops Passionflower Wild Lettuce

Sustainability Status
Key benefits
  • Wounds, grazes, stings
  • Dry and inflamed rashes
  • Catarrh and coughs
  • Inflamed mucous membranes
  • 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.

  • Traditional uses

    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.

  • Traditional actions

  • 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.

  • Research

    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.

Additional information

  • Botanical description

    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.

  • Common names

    Plantago major

    • Greater plantain
    • Broad-leaved plantain
    • Rat tails
    • Cuckoo’s bread
    • Snakeweed
    • Cart track plant
    • Dooryard plantain
    • White man’s foot
    • Waybread

    Plantago lanceolata

    • Ribwort
    • Cat’s cradle
    • Chimney sweeps
    • Narrow-leaved plantain
    • Knock-head
    • Cock-grass
    • Jack straws
  • Safety

    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.

  • Dosage

    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.

  • Constituents

    • Iridoid glycosides including aucubin, catalpol
    • Flavonoids including apigenin, luteolin, hispidulin, baicalein, scutallarein and plantaginin
    • Polysaccharides mucilage
    • Phenolic acid derivatives
    • Tannins
    • Saponins
    • Alkaloids Indicain and plantagonin
    • Vitamins and minerals including zinc and silica, the latter more so in ribwort
  • Recipe

    Greater plantain salve

    Ingredients:

    • 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

    Method:

    • 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

    Ingredients:

    • 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

    Method:

    • 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
  • References

    1. 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)
    2. 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).
    3. 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
    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
    5. 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
    6. 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
    7. https://ascensionkitchen.com/plantain-salve/. Accessed February 2022.
    8. Nozedar, A: The Hedgerow Handbook. Recipes, Remedies and Rituals.(2012) Square Peg publishers. ISB9780224086714
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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