Plantain: Traveller’s Talisman

Early Plantain Leaves

I’ve been reading Martin Shaw’s “Scatterlings” this winter. The message is a wise old one, that “what we’re searching far and wide for, turns out to be actually right where we live”. What I resonate with in Martin’s book is, because we’re in a cultural/technological trance we can’t see or access this deep, nourishing relationship with the land. We fly all over the world looking for this thing that we’re missing, chasing after this or that trend, rather than staying where we are, and burrowing into the present. By living in a deep way with the land, in a “nest” of presence, we come to know and be connected with the plants, animals and land Herself, as a living mythical being. One that embodies the secrets of our ancient past, and whispers out morning’s misty spells to create each day anew. When we are not present, we are someplace else. We find the nourishment and inspiration to really “be” at home where we live, through coming to experience Her mythical dimensions.

These are all things I deeply believe and have lived for more then thirty years. Ironically though, this winter I travelled for the first time in many years. And what I realized was, I may have the opposite problem to the seekers and wonderers. Which is, I’m so focused on these realities of the land, it’s very hard for me to get out and leave. I don’t mean, I’m afraid to go out or that it’s hard for me to leave my work. Rather, I feel so involved with the story and attached to the land, it’s hard to imagine it won’t all collapse when I stop listening and leave, or that it will be there when I come back. It feels like I’m walking out on my Grandmother, part way through her story. Even in February when she seems to be napping, the plot moves forward.

Yet, sometimes we’ve got to go. We’re called out, or the cage of our life gets too tight. This winter, the family and I went on a month long road-trip/book-tour down the Eastern Seaboard to the very tip of Florida. A small thing for most folks I imagine. But for two Taurus’s, who haven’t travelled in ten years since they had kids, it felt like pulling out a stump. In the weeks before we left, the pushing, pulling and hacking of our ties, to get us lose, began in ernest. As the day of departure was approaching, it felt like the main tap root we were pulling on was directly rooted into my gut. The pain increased with each day until I couldn’t sleep or eat well. When I went to the bathroom my stool was black. If you haven’t been eating blood pudding, this generally means there’s bleeding in your digestive tract. Not a good sign.

Before the pain, and seeing signs of blood in my digestive track, I had been thinking ‘gallbladder/liver’ because my digestion seemed really off. I had been taking bitters for my liver, and celandine once (which is very toxic) for my gall bladder, but these digestives weren’t helping as they have before. After suffering through another long sleepless night, on the morning of departure, fearing I might end up in a U.S. hospital without health insurance, I went to our local hospital. They couldn’t tell me what it was but the doctor thought it was most likely a bleeding stomach ulcer, which they can’t do anything for. They told me to watch for fever or other signs of infection and gave me prescriptions for tranquilizers and antacid. I never had to take either.

Once I realized that the problem was my stomach, and there was likely a bleeding (maybe infected) ulcer, and that it wasn’t my liver or gallbladder, my intuition immediately brought me to Plantain. No, not the banana, but the lowly herb. Sometimes, when we think “I know”, it gets in the way of our intuition telling us what we really need.

It’s always amazing when you think you know a herb and have used it for years, but then realize a whole new side of her. This has happened to me many times. Just like people, when they join in to heal or change something, whole new sides of them emerge that we have never seen. When I called on many of my herbal healers for help with Lyme disease, I came to know Teasel, Bee Balm, Boneset, Dandelion, Burdock, Cleavers, Sarsaparilla and many others, in a new way because of the more acute situation. These plants and thousands of others have so many hidden gifts to offer us when we are in need and ready to receive them. These herbs are gifts from the Gods to both sustain our health, and heal us in an acute situation.

Plantain, Plantago major has followed in the wake of colonization as a healing balm. A balm to heal the wounds to the Earth inflicted by horse and cart, and heavy soled shoes. And, a balm for wounds to human and animal alike. The juice, tea or poultices of the green leaf has miraculous properties as an antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and analgesic. Ribwort is one of Plantain’s common names, and a key to its traditional use. The ribs, which run the length of the leaves, signify how she pulls out toxins, stops bleeding and heals wounds. She pulls the pain and the toxins from the cut and sews it safely closed, free of infection. Thankfully, I’ve know plantain for many decades, and used her topically for every kind of bite to take both the pain and the itch away. As well as for boils, burns (sun and fire), rash (including diaper rash and shingles), mastitis and other infections. I’ve sold plantain to people in Central and South America because it’s in great demand there for use in healing internal aliments, including cirrhosis of the liver. But I had never worked with her myself for internal problems. Plantain is also well known as a lung remedy.

At our farm we wild cultivate her so we can harvest leaves for salad in spring, in early summer for cooked greens, late summer for medicine and we collect the seed in the fall for food. We add it as a part of a wild seed mix that supplements our flours. This highly nutritious oily seed is related to psyllium to she aids in digestion and elimination.

I made a good strong tea/soup and drank it for the first few days we were on the road, eating the leaves and all. I ate the seed in bread, and my morning porridge. And, I did tincture throughout those first “acute” days and afterward in smaller amounts for the remainder of the month long road trip. Within a day or two I was completely better, no more signs of blood or pain.

Plantain gone to seed

Like that healing wasn’t enough, she still had more gifts for me. In the extended use of this powerful herb I came to realize; not only is she a healer for the travel beaten roads of the Earth, and the wounds to, and within, our bodies, but the deeper mystery of why she has travelled with us for over nine thousand years. We brought her with us from Asia and the Northern Steppes of Europe, because she is a talisman of the traveler. Her presence and use as a tea, tincture or food has aided us, as immigrants, to humbly blending in with the new place in a useful way (and not aggressively colonize). And she’s given us the toughness to be stepped on and still thrive in diverse conditions. We can also look to her for the ability to quickly form roots that can draw from and transform poor over-compressed ground, where the displaced often find themselves.

Contained in what is the most common of plants, we step on every day, is both a food staple (of greens and grain) and miraculous multifaceted healer.

It’s somehow fitting that this gift who has been with us for thousands of years, so often goes unseen. As we grow up, we’re always told to “look up” and “look ahead”, to keep our “head high” and “chin up”, but really maybe we should be teaching our kids to “look down”, “look what your stepping on”, “look at what sustains and heals us”.

An ancient companion and mysterious healer is growing by your doorstep, don’t miss the chance to introduce yourself to divinity. 


Don’t underestimate the power of the seed. They are very, very small but without them life as we know it would end on the planet.

Elecampane Seed Head

The late fall is an excellent time of year for seed collecting and for starting to picture a richer, more diverse ecology. This dream, this vision of earthly fecundity is more possible and within our grasp than we imagine. To co-create such a future with the Earth is our ancient legacy. However, we have all been brought up with no understanding or re-membering of these responsibilities, or of our ancestor’s ways. Our landscaping and agricultural practices generally cut out the healing and rejuvenating forces of nature by cutting the ‘weeds’ out of the equation and placing chemical fertilizers and pesticides in their place. By contrast, Indigenous agricultural practices work with these very plants and forces.  As we get to know the rejuvenating nature of wild plants or weeds (otherwise known as herbs) and their medicinal and edible value we will hopefully realize the folly of our ways and invite these plants back into our lives, our gardens, our medicine cabinets and kitchens, giving them back the central place they once held in our culture.

However, this is easier said than done. Many folks want to create biodiversity and grow medicinal and edible plants but don’t know where to start. So, they go to a medicinal plant nursery and buy a few special (often rare) plants. You get them home and have no idea where to put them, because you’ve never seen the plant in the wild. So into the garden they go. Maybe it grows for a season or two if you’re lucky but most often it doesn’t thrive or ever get established because it doesn’t belong. Most herbs don’t feel they have a place in such compost-rich soil that we have for our vegetable and flowers. And they likely don’t have any of their evolved relations (fungal, plant or animal) in the soil and ecology you provided. Common plants are known as ‘generalists’ because they can survive under a huge range of conditions. But many rare plants need very specific environments. It’s most often these plants that are endangered because their niche habitat has been wiped out or changed unintentionally. The fact is we’ve largely stripped the Earth of unique rich ecologies. We stripped not just top soil through building, agriculture and erosion but the diversity of plants that can heal and ‘grow’ the soil. And in stripping the aboveground landscape we also strip the diversity of fungi and other micro-fauna and flora in the soil which evolved with and support these special herbs in a reciprocal way.

At this point you may well ask, how then do I reestablish rich diverse ecologies on the land for which I am the caretaker?

Here is my suggestion, work from the bottom up not the top down. Don’t buy rare plants because you want to ‘help endangered plants’ or just to grow something ’special’. Don’t buy them unless you already know them well and understand what they need and can provide that for them without too much effort. Instead, look at your land and invite the healing herbs that want to be there in. Come to understand where the land is at and how you can work toward healing and enrich it without too much cost or disruption to the local ecology. 

Angelica seeds

Changes to the land itself require a great deal of attention so I would suggest you focus on just one microclimate at a time over the period of a year before doing anything. Then you might do something like clear an area or burn it over or compost piles, create windbreaks, dig a drainage ditch or make planting mounds, seed green manure crops or top dress with mineral amendments. These alterations to the land are not necessary, it just means in the end you will have a more rich and diverse range of environs and plants that can thrive on your land. It is important to meditate on how the land might be changed from where it’s at, not from where you and your dreams are at. Move forward one step at a time, slowly working toward a co-created dream with the Earth. 

Then, after careful assessment, and possible enrichment of the microclimates, PLANT SEEDS. Some seeds require ground preparation some do not. Ideally, collect the seeds yourself or trade them locally. Unless its a local seed company anything you buy will not likely be harvested from anywhere near where you live. Even if the Latin name of the plant is the same, in reality there are many sub, sub species that are unrecognized in botanical categorization. In some cases this might be a problem, because the import may overshadow the evolved local variety over time. Or the non-local seed might not thrive. Or they may take many years to adapt. Importing seeds to your area can work and I have done it, but I assure you the easiest and ecologically best way to get your seeds is to simply find plants in your region that seem like they might grow on your land, or someplace you have access too. You’re looking to move the plant to a similar piece of land with similar conditions to where the seeds came from. Generally, seed that’s taken from within a couple hundred miles are considered local, but this totally depends on the plant. For example, I’ve seen virtually identical Mullein in Canada’s far north, the U.S. desert and mountains in Central America. And I’ve seen nettle change over a township line in Southern Ontario. But don’t let this paralyze you, I don’t believe in rigid lines, everything is evolving and a new species or variety may be what the land needs. You don’t have to worry about this too much with ‘generalist’ plants, but I say all this so you consider it well before settling on a seed source.

Lamb’s quarters Seeds

Collecting seed is all very simple once you know the plants, but it does take prolonged attention and timing. With a little effort in the first few years I was on this land in Golden Lake I seeded or planted about 60 plants into the ecology. After about ten years, of the plants regrowing the soil and ecology the land became an eden of diversity and fecundity, a herbalist’s orgasm. I’ve also enriched many disturbed and transitional areas of public crown land. You can wildculture land with little disruption, invisible to the untrained eye. Because isn’t done by changing big things quickly by cutting trees, bulldozing and plowing the land to fit our will (the way land is usually colonized). Rather, the changes happen slowly by finding plants that fit and work with the environment. These ‘agents of change’ can thrive naturally without any help from us. Starhawk made Fukuoka’s idea of the ‘seed ball’ famous, by applying his agricultural development to activism. The seed balls are made from seed, soil and clay (so they hold together) and can be dropped or even lobbed anywhere. This can even be done on ’private’ or ‘restricted’ land that has been abandoned, to help it evolve, be more diverse and serve all of nature. You can also just mix seed with sandy loam in a bucket and sprinkle the mix where you want the plant to grow. (This technique is outlined in detail in my book, ‘The Madawaska Forest Garden’.)

Because these plants are wild and not garden varieties that are bred for visual impact, and because they’re growing in a ‘wild’ hard environment they have real MEDICINE for healing. 

I would also recommend you think about plants for different successions on the land over time. This means including bushes and trees. Herbs are generally healers of the land, meant to thrive for a time and then fade, in order to prepare the earth for the next wave of bigger plants. These waves keep coming and moving the land toward its climax ecology.  For example, the exhausted fields around the farm where I live are meant to be, and will eventually become, a pine-hardwood forest. Without intervention this process might take two hundred years for hardwood forest to reclaim the land. And that’s assuming that the seeds for the trees and earlier successions exist in the seed bank or the surrounding ecologies and have the means to migrate to this place (through wind, birds and animals). Otherwise it will never recover to a natural climax state. By introducing the right seed at the right time in the right place, which is essentially just giving the land the right tools, the regeneration time can be cut from 200+ years to 100 years.   

Dandelion Seed Head

This process can be bumped along at almost any point to speed the natural succession and evolution of the land. For example, a healthy forest of softwood having grown back in since the land was cut forty years previous, can be seeded with productive hardwood seeds from trees like Oak and Sugar Maple to bump along the succession. To do this with sugar maple seeds think about how they naturally fall and grow. They are layered in with the fall leaves and sprout in the damp leaf litter in the spring. Oak by contrast fall like a stone. They might bounce and roll finding a nook to overwinter in, but not likely. Acorns are prime food for almost all the birds and mammals in the forest. So they evolved to be buried in a cash by a rodent and germinate deeper in the ground itself. Sugar maples make keys, that can be easy gathered in abundance in the late fall. These, even with leaves from the site mixed in, can be scattered or lightly raked into the litter of the softwood forest. For Oak, Beech and other nut bearing hardwoods, collecting is the hard part. Low hanging limbs are great to gather viable nuts from. I also used to go out first thing in the morning after a big late summer/early fall storm to collect fallen nuts before the rodents and deer got them all. Stick nuts into the ground one nut at a time an inch or two deep when the soil is moist in the fall. They, like the Maples should stratify over the winter and then will germinate in the spring. Sometimes with bigger nuts this takes two years. A small tip for collecting Black Walnut or Butternut type of nuts is to provide the squirrels, who often beat you to the nuts, with hiding places. Like an up-side-down pot or hollow log under the tree. And then just collect them during the storage season, leaving a few nuts in the stash. 

Another example of helping bump along a natural succession, on lower seasonally flooded land, would be to introduce high bush cranberry, elderberry. These can be seeded like the nut trees but critters like these ‘fruit’ as much as we do. So with many water loving shrubs you will have greater success with cuttings. Hopefully from other nearby patches. These will grow maybe 50% of the time. Cut the cuttings on an angle so they can be easily shoved an inch or two into the ground, in a clear area where there isn’t much competition. Do this at the right time of year (spring or early fall when there is lots of moisture) or keep it moist and shaded during the summer. 

Marshmallow Seeds

Another example for higher land would be to introduce berry shrubs like blueberry or service berries and small nut trees like hazelnut. These can be started from cuttings (in pots) or placed as stratified seed directly into the soil about an inch deep. As cuttings these, unlike elderberry or crampbark (high bush cranberry), need a rooting hormone (from nursery) as well as consistent moist soil for a month or two.

May the power of seed be with you!

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