P. lanceolata is one of two common types of plantain. P. major, the other, is a broad leaf variety. The leaves look more rounded- they remind me a little bit of a tongue. I have observed both growing around the farm, but in my area narrow leaf starts growing earlier in the year than broadleaf. I've also noticed that the broadleaf version seems to prefer lots of water, and will reach an impressive size in shady, wet areas.
Plantain is well regarded in old herbal texts, and is used by modern herbalists as well. P. major and P. lanceolata can be used interchangeably.
A third kind of plantain, Plantago aristata, is a native plantain that was used by several tribes of Native Americans in much the same ways as p. lanceolata and p. major have been used by Europeans. The Native Americans also adopted the use of the European plantains after they naturalized.
If you keep a plantain plant or two in your garden, as I do, you can keep harvesting over the summer. Every time you cut it back it will put out a new flush of growth. This can also be a useful way to harvest it in general- harvest and juice, then freeze the juice for use over the winter. Plantain is an annual, meaning the whole plant dies every year and comes back from seed the next. Usually, you won't have to buy seeds for plantain. Just keep an eye out for it while you are weeding the garden and let them stay once they show up.
Root, leaf, and seed can all be used. I only use the leaf, because I usually harvest over the whole summer by cutting and then coming back to harvest again once it has regrown. Several good harvests can be gotten in this way- usually, I am able to harvest every week to ten days once the growing season really gets going. Plantain can be used fresh or dried, but it is usually better to use fresh if possible. The plant can be juiced or used to make an infusion. I also like to make an infused oil that can be used as-is or made into a salve.
Some Herbal Jargon
Plantain was historically very important for it's cooling and drawing properties. All of the books that I referenced when I was initially studying plantain agree that one of the main characteristics of plantain is its cooling action. This has also been my experience with it. Saying that plantain is cooling is herbal-speak for observing how an herb acts on the human body. Heat is generally a concept of infection or inflammation, anything that causes "heat signs" like redness, swelling, feeling hot to the touch locally, yellow colored mucus or discharges, fever, etc. Plantain is applied in the presence of heat signs to bring the balance of the body to the correct state by cooling.
Although everyone agrees about that, there is a little discrepancy surrounding another property of plantain. Is it moistening? Or is it drying? Some sources classify it as moistening while others put it in the drying category- it just depends on who you ask or who you are reading. I think it makes the most sense if you look at it this way: If drying is understood to be a reference to it's unusual ability to draw out or "dry up" infection or foreign substances, then yes. Technically you could say it is drying. However, it does not have a drying affect on the body itself, rather the opposite, so it should probably be considered a moistening herb if we play by the rules of using drying/moistening to explain a change in the human body itself and not describe action on foreign material lodged in it.
I also think it interesting to note that rather than having antibacterial properties per se, which is one of the modern ways cooling herbs are understood to work (although that's kind of an over-simplification and is also one of my pet peeves) the plant genuinely seems to cause the body to expel infected material by "drawing out". This is as opposed to many of the other cooling herbs, where the heat signs more or less gradually subside and dissipate. Plantain, on the other hand, sucks the nasty stuff right out and then the body can get on with the process of repair. In my experience, it can be quite dramatic and gross, but plantain's moistening ability seems to specifically promote quick healing once the infected material is out, often leaving little or no scarring behind.
I have several examples of using plantain as a salve that illustrated this particularly well.
In the first instance, I had gotten a large splinter embedded under the nail of my ring finger. I pulled it out and cleaned it as best I could, but about a week later I noticed that the whole tip of my finger was beginning to feel sore. I applied plantain salve under the edge of my nail where the splinter had been, and within about fifteen minutes the area around the nail and the tip of my finger were visibly swollen and throbbing. A friend helped me cut the nail down the middle and pare it back to see if there was a pocket of infection we could release. We found a nice little gob of pus, that came oozing out like a caterpillar, about the same length as my finger from the tip to the first knuckle. Once it was out, I packed plantain salve into the nail bed and had no more problems with it.
The second instance was a friend of mine who contracted MRSA. The infection kept cropping up around the lymph glands under the arms and in the groin. In addition to the (several) antibiotics regimen supplied by their doctor, we juiced cleavers and used them internally for the lymphatic system, and applied plantain salve topically. The plantain produced the signature plug of pus every time, and we applied it as needed. It also gave relief from pain in the infected areas. Eventually the condition cleared and we needed to apply the plantain less and less frequently. I had them continue the cleavers for a few days after their skin cleared completely, and they used it once or twice after that when they felt like the infection was trying to flare up again. Another thing I felt was important in this case, since the underarms were involved, was switching to a chemical free, fragrance free deodorant as the skin was especially sensitive during the infection.
I have used plantain on my horses as well. I rescued an older gelding a couple of years ago, and when he came to me he was very underweight and had some very dirty, old, ugly looking saddle sores that I uncovered while I was cleaning him up. The simplest, least traumatic thing to do was apply salve and see how well the wounds cleaned themselves, which I did. Within a day they were completely clean, and had healed up by the end of the week. Interesting to note: in A Modern Herbal Ms Grieve quotes a Dr Withering, from The Arrangement of Plants, saying that sheep, goats and pigs like to eat plantain, but cows and horses won't. I can't speak about whether or not cows eat it, but have noticed that my horses seem to love it, especially the lance-leaf variety. People can eat it too, when the leaves are small and young- but I haven't tried that personally. I'm usually waiting on it to get bigger so I can make salve or juice it for freezing.
Plantain seems to have an affinity for skin, the intestinal tract, the lungs, and the kidneys. I have seen several mentions of it for use in gout, hepatitis, jaundice, and earache but there wasn't much detail supplied for those cases so I'm not sure how it was used specifically in those regards.
Drawing agent for pulling out foreign substances and infected material.
Venomous Bites and Stings
Think spiders, mosquitoes, snakes, and bees. Obviously, if you get bitten by a snake or spider, the smartest thing to do is get prompt medical attention. Before emergency rooms were around, though, plantain was regarded as the go-to herb for snake bite. Using the fresh leaves in a poultice was the usual protocol. I know first hand that it works very well for bee and wasp stings, but I haven't tried it on mosquito bites yet.
Traditionally used for cough, bronchitis, pneumonia, and asthma. Historically, it seems it's best suited for cases where the mucus is a by product of a stubborn, nasty infection or there is fluid build up in the lungs. This is because plantain is regarded as cooling and moistening, but also dries up/draws out mucus and water from the lungs.
Teeth and Gums
Several herbalists speak very highly of plantain's ability to help with problems of the mouth. Plantain's affinity for drawing out comes in handy once again for pockets of infection and lingering infection after root canal, and other traditional uses include thrush in children, mouth ulcers, and inflamed gums. An infusion can be used as a mouth wash, or an infused oil can be used for oil pulling.
Everyone has plenty to say about plantain and the skin. It appears to be specific for burning pain and/or itching, and has been used for cuts, scrapes, scabs, ringworm, shingles, burns, acne, eczema, blisters; helping to pull out splinters; and poison ivy or itchy rashes from contact dermatitis. It's especially good as additional help for dirty wounds that are difficult to clean, or for things like cat or dog bites that can get ugly very fast.
Plantain is a very gentle regulator for the bowels in that it is laxative or astringent as needed. It's best regarded as balancing or normalizing. This is why in old herbals you will find praise for its laxative properties right next to accolades for its ability to dry up dysentery. Because of its soothing, moistening abilities, it can help with inflammation in the gut lining and also seems to work well soothing nerves in the intestines that may be irritated and causing bowel problems in that manner.
Plantain is seen as a strengthening diuretic, rather than an irritant, and traditionally it was used for edema and low grade inflammation of the kidneys with lower back pain. Herbalists also added it to formulas for bladder infection thanks to its soothing, cooling, and moistening abilities.