I have heard a lot about plantain over the years — the herb, not the fruit, though I suppose I’ve heard a lot about the fruit too. Herbalists profess their deep, undying love for this little weedy herb to such an extent that I thought the claims could not possibly be true. It’s not that it really cures cancer and heart disease, but it is touted as a general remedy for rashes and bites, reducing the sting, swelling, itchiness, and rash. Really? I pretty much ignored the plant thinking there was an awful lot of hype out there.
Then one day a year or so ago I had bug bites on each hand, about three bites total, one of which was extra swollen and itchy. I was on a walk near my property and as my heart rate rose while walking the slopes, I could feel my heart beating in that extra bad bite.
I scratched it once and that was it. I scratched and scratched and scratched. I spotted a local plantain variety and thought, “Go get it, plantain. Live up to it, buddy.”
I grabbed three little leaves, stuck them in my mouth, chewed them up, and put the chewed-up mess right onto the sting. I kept walking. The spot began to sting like a bugger. I thought, “Right…..so much for the plantain.”
I made my way home and worked on the property. Somewhere in the working, the plantain “spit poultice” dried up and fell off. (Yes, it’s really called a “spit poultice”….)
I forgot about the whole thing until the next day when my other two bites were itching mildly. I gave them a bit of a scratch and then looked at the site of the bigger bite. It was dried up completely.
I was sold.
I went back on a hike, picked some more plantain, and made a salve to keep on hand. Our local plantain grows as an annual plant and is only available in mid-spring through mid-summer at which point it dries up completely.
The plantain most people are familiar with — plantago major — is a perennial herb that may top kill in the winter depending on your zone but would generally be available to you through most of your growing season. For gardeners and hikers it is available most of the year for that whole “spit poultice” approach. It really couldn’t be easier. (All of the plantain varieties I am aware of have this “spit poultice” potential. To know for sure if yours does, you might test it out on your next insect bite.)
For gardeners planning to cultivate plantain for their medicine cabinets, I do recommend plantago major. It has a nice, large leaf for easy harvesting and more is known about this particular variety. If you have a local wild variety that works for you, I wouldn’t bother cultivating plantago major.
Since plantain is not likely available in your growing region year-round, you need a year-round storage solution. A salve or, easier still, an alcohol extract both work well. Both are inexpensive, simple, and convenient.
Alcohol extracts are simple: add plant material to a high-proof alcohol, let it sit for some weeks, strain off the herb, and retain the alcohol. Use the alcohol to treat your bites and rashes. Plantain is edible so I suppose you could also add the alcohol to your cocktail but it would be just about the worst cocktail on earth. (I test these things carefully just to be sure…)
Make as much of this as you want but I find a one-cup measure to be adequate for the season. Scale up or down as you see fit.
Salves are also simple: Get as much of the herb into the oil base as possible and, preferably, dry the herb first. If your herb is dry, it will not add moisture to your oil base. Added water decreases the shelf life via mold.
Use both the extract and the salve externally on rashes or bites. For the salve, rub it on as you would any lotion. In the case of the extract, you can spritz it on if you keep it in a spray bottle. I tend to pour a bit in the palm of my hand and use my hand to apply it to the affected area. Re-apply every few hours or as needed.
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