By Lacey Walker
I'll admit I was a bit miffed when I started hearing herbalists referring to their use of Plantain Leaf as a great locally foraged medicine.
"Where on Earth are they locally sourcing this banana leaf," I thought, my mind going to the only plantain I have ever heard of, the long green variety that is fried up in Central America to make a delicious starchy chip.
Plantago Lanceolata and Plantago Major are exotic sounding names for the different varieties of the first inconspicuous looking medicine we set out to study.
This plantain happens to be long and green too. Or, well, round and green if you find Plantago Major instead of Plantago Lanceolata.
But as it turns out, we're all familiar with plantain leaf. Yes, even the couch dwellers of us. If you've walked across a grassy patch between your car and a store you've probably unintentionally trampled on plantain leaf. Plantago actually means "sole of the foot" in Latin, so these little guys are used to being trampled I suppose.
On our first day of class we had spent the morning learning words like cholagogue and demulcent and herbal energetic words like cooling and toning and were itching to find these magical plants that corresponded to these new words.
Plantain is a panacea, according to many herbalists you ask. It has so many uses and energetics attributed to it but it is probably best well known for it's healing properties for skin.
Plantain is a vulnerary that is renowned for it's cooling and drawing energetics, which explains why it's history is awash in bee stings, mosquito bites, eczema and even snake bites.
On this unseasonably warm April day we learned first hand how to ease the discomfort of mosquito bites. As the flying beasties stretched their wings and tested their proboscises for the first time that year, we budding herbalists reached for leaf after leaf from the ever giving plantain leaf.
The method we learned is simple: pick a leaf from an unsprayed plant (i.e., don't pick a leaf from the side of a road that has been choked with car exhaust or a leaf from an herbicide doused yard), put the leaf in your mouth and chew, now spit (or if you are a lady, remove said chewed herb and gently place it) on the offending bite, and that's it.
My personal saga with mosquitos is as follows - as long as I have taken in breath and expelled carbon dioxide the mosquitos have sought me out. Whether it's because I eat too many sweet bananas or my skin is just thin enough for them to easily pierce it I couldn't say, but what I can say is that each tiny pinprick I receive quickly swells and blossoms to a deep red, rounded raspberry. The itch is intense. The mark indelible and inconsolable.
I've grown accustomed to applying plasters of inefficient antihistamine creams.
That is until I met Plantago.
My first bite of the day received a timid but hopeful spit poultice. As did the second and third. And as I traveled home that day with close to 10 bites, I had forgotten about them before I had even eaten dinner. No red lumps, no clawing itch. Just a tiny pinprick that seemed to shrink to nothing within a day or so. Magic?
While plantain grows all around us, availability of unadulterated plantain is not always as easy to find. So after experimenting with fresh plantain we set out to make a salve, something we could carry with us in the city, through the desert and into our homes to ease cuts, bruises, burns and bites.
As a class we gathered plantain leaf and dandelion flower to make our salve, learning that dandelion has antibacterial properties that can assist in wound healing and cleaning up acne and other blemishes.
The process of making a salve seemed so intimidating. What if we did it wrong? Was this flower good enough? What if there were bugs on the flowers?
Molly has a way of making medicine so approachable though. We gathered our ingredients together in a carved gourd basket and then plopped them on a baking sheet and threw them in the oven on a super low temperature to wilt (to expel excess moisture content). If we had wanted to take the leisurely route we could have laid them out in the sun for a bit and sipped our tea until they wilted, or just set them out overnight, but we were all in such high energy spirits that we wanted to see this salve made as quickly as possible.
After the flowers were wilted to expel excess moisture, we chopped our plantain leaves and flowers, allowing the cell walls of the marc (the herb) to open so that the medicine could be better absorbed into the menstreum
Then we had a choice. Use a little heat and meld the herbs with the oil, or use no heat and let the herbs meld slowly over the period of a few weeks.
The thought of waiting a few weeks to see our finished product seemed terrible so we made haste to the stove and over very low heat we swirled the oil and herbs together, taking shifts the rest of the class to stir the pot for several hours on low heat.
Once the oil had absorbed the plantain and dandelion we strained the marc out and were ready to add our solidifying agent, beeswax (as a side note, vegans can opt for shea butter or coconut oil), and within seconds of adding the beeswax our salve was taking shape and we quickly poured it into little tins to cool and take home.
But that wasn't all we were making on our first weekend of herbalists. An herbalist would be amiss to not learn the helpful skill of tincture making.
A tincture is an extract of herbs in alcohol. Think of vanilla extract. If you've ever made vanilla extract at home then you've already mastered the skills of tincture making.
For our first tincture we looked to the garden again, or more correctly, we looked to the grass. Hidden among the tall blades of grass, the clover and plantain, lay everyone's old friend, dandelion, freshly robbed of her yellow ringed hat.
As we had learned over our morning tea, dandelion root is a strong medicine for the kidneys, promoting liver health and encouraging waste evacuation through the bladder due to it's diuretic action. So we set about digging the tender roots of the dandelion.
"Now remember when we use root medicine we are taking all of the plant, we are taking it's life completely to make our medicine," Molly said, as she stroked the root she had just dug as a demonstration. "Dandelion root is a beautiful medicine, but your intention as you gather medicine is just as important as the medicine itself. Consider thanking the plants that are giving their lives for your medicine." For some plants there are ways to help separate and propagate the roots which will actually help them spread, which is important especially for less abundant or at-risk species.
After collecting and washing our dandelion roots we set them out in the sun to dry. Then we chopped the roots, opening the cell walls, and threw them, while giving proper thanks, into a large mason jar and filled the jar almost to the top with brandy. Molly likes to use brandy in her tinctures, because that's the alcohol she learned to use in tincture making, but any alcohol over 80 proof will work in general. As we get a little deeper with our medicine making we learn that some herbs have constituents that extract with higher alcohol content, but this first lesson is really meant to make medicine making approachable. Then we sealed up the jar and set it in a cool, dark spot to meld. Every day or two the tincture should be shaken to move the plant material around and after 4 to 6 weeks it can be pressed out and used.
As we prepared our tincture Molly passed around berries and roots and leaves of different plants to try. We smelled rose petals harvested and dried from last season, and chewed on hawthorn berries and sucked on sweet licorice. And then quite out of the blue, under the sway of all the bountiful tastes and smells around us, Molly declared, "Let's make a love potion!"
The faint of heart, those afraid of becoming "crunchy" or a potion brewing witch, may have balked at this idea. But after spending the morning harvesting plants and roots, after making a salve and a tincture, a love potion suddenly didn't feel so silly.
Sure, it wouldn't pierce the heart like a cupids arrow. We didn't expect any Hollywood fireworks to shoot off after taking the tincture. But slowly the idea that medicine doesn't always have to be this forceful, strict, and expedient word, that medicine can be something that coaxes your mood, that softens your affections, that supports your natural state, or simply be something that takes your mind to another place, that idea had begun to sink in.
A word has the power to loosen itself of it's societal fetters if you give it the chance.
Medicine is defined as a substance used to treat an illness or a disease. A remedy.
Health, in many medical circles, is defined as the absence of disease.
But in herbal medicine, as well as many other types of natural medicine, as they are often referred to, health and medicine are much broader terms. Health is a state of balance, a positive state of well-being that encompasses all the aspects of your mental and physical life. Medicine supports that.
Music is medicine. Gardening is medicine. And yes, even love potions are medicine.