An incredibly versatile herb meets an incredibly pervasive, pesky problem in this spotlight. Plantain is a remedy of old that has countless uses, including a fantastic bug bite remedy. In the thick of summer, we reach for plantain frequently in this herbal home. For skin irritation of all kinds, but especially bug bites, plantain is indispensable (and plentiful, too!).
What is Plantain?
Whether or not you have plantain in your herbal medicine cabinet, you probably have it in your yard. Much different from the banana-looking vegetable by the same name, the herb plantain is more commonly recognized as a weed. This is why I love Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous quip:
“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
Plantain grows with the leaves surrounding the stem at the base. The leaves of Plantago major, broadleaf plantain, are more oval and tend to be somewhat large, and the stems stand above them with seeds covering them. A more commonly found variety grows narrower leaves with tall, thin, and somewhat squared, with a flowering seed head clustered at the top. As a child, you might have pulled them, wrapped them into a loop, and popped the tops off, launching them at each other or at targets.
They can be found in most yards and fields throughout the US, and they can very quickly take over. That’s actually how they made it to the US at all, hitchhiking along with the new settlers. Natives in both America and New Zealand have called plantain “Englishman’s foot” or “white man’s foot,” because wherever the newcomers came, plantain seemed to come with them.
In European history, plantain has been used for generations. Bruising or smashing it made a healing poultice. Teas and extractions were used for internal complaints. Plantain was a must-have, one stop healer for many conditions.
The tradition was carried on, with many wise women and healers, especially in the southern regions, who knew to use this plentiful “weed” in itches, inflammation, and more. Older generations in this area may still remember picking some plantain, chewing it up, and putting it on a sting or bug bite.
The Problem with Bug Bites
Bug bites are among the most challenging parts of summer. A fun evening out in the warm night air can quickly turn miserable if you or your kids are scratching and scratching.
In most cases, it isn’t the bite itself that’s the itch, but the anesthetic that a bug leaves so that you can’t feel it getting its snack off of you! If you’re allergic to it, your body will attack the substance with white blood cell antibodies (inflammation, puffiness) and red blood cells (redness), and the histamines meant to help often leave that frustrating, hives-like itch.
That’s why you might get “eaten up” with bug bites while your loved one sits next to you and doesn’t get a thing. It’s not that the bugs like you more – it’s just that you react to it, while they probably got the same bites without ever feeling a thing. Yuck, all around!
It’s also why a bug bite remedy isn’t just “anti-itch.” It should address the inflammation and allergic reaction together.
Tried and True Bug Bite Remedy
As with any herb with such a long history of use, tradition tells us a lot about effectiveness. Sometimes it’s not quite right, due to internal uses and the ancients knowing less about how internal systems work. But with external uses like a bug bite remedy, each generation used and were thankful for the relief that plantain brought. Then they passed the knowledge along. How wonderful to be part of such a legacy!
At its most basic use, you can simply forage for plantain. The caution will be whether the area has been sprayed with chemicals. If it’s in your yard or a wild area that you trust to be free of direct sprays, learn to identify plantain and be ready to grab some when the itch begins. Simply wash it, bruise/smash it, and apply it where itchy.
Or, keep a salve on hand with plantain as a primary ingredient. I put Healing Salve in my backpack or bag, and send one with my kiddo if we will be apart. It’s not only for herbal first aid, but made with plantain and other anti-inflammatories, astringent herbs, it’s an effective bug bite remedy that can address the symptoms of a bug bite or sting.
Caution: Watch for signs of infection in any bite, especially tick and spider bites. Quick response from a physician will be needed in these situations.
Other Plantain Remedies
Use plantain in other traditional healing ways, including:
- In rash-symptom relieving salve
- In a cough-relieving tea
- In an anti-bacterial soothing spray
Do you have plantain in your yard? How do you plan to use it (or Healing Salve) this summer?