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  • Writer's pictureAnna

For sprains, use plantain

Did you know that this common wild plant is a powerful medicinal herb that can aid in tissue repair?

It was the first day of the eagerly awaited trip to Turkey with my spiritual group. I had had a lovely afternoon on my own, visiting my old haunts in Beyoğlu, stopping into an immersive installation at the contemporary art space Salt, doing a bit of shopping and generally enjoying the vibrancy of Istanbul. 

I was on my back to the hotel, when just a few meters from the entrance, I found myself unexpectedly sitting down on the pavement. A man came running toward me from across the street.

“Are you all right?”

In the moment of looking for something in my bag, I had stepped into a gap in the pavement and sprained my ankle. It had already started swelling.

Taking the hand offered by that good Samaritan, I got up and hobbled back to the hotel. For the next few hours I sat in the lobby with a bag of ice on my ankle. Several friends came over to inquire what had happened, and if I needed anything.

“I need plantain -- but not the banana, the plant-plantain,” I replied. 

From their puzzled looks I recalled that not everyone is aware of my herbalist side, much less the powerful medicine of this common yet little-known plant.

Plantago major and plantago lanceolata probably grows on every single continent on Earth. (One of its vernacular names is “white man’s foot” as it seemed to follow in the path of colonialist exploration.) In Central and Eastern Europe it is used widely as a tea or syrup for respiratory issues, from the common cold to bronchitis. Gardeners know it as a ready form of first aid for insect bites or nettle stings. 

My herbalism teacher Nikki Darrell uses it externally to treat wounds and bruises, and for internal use recommends putting handfuls of leaves into salads and pesto “when people need large doses to help with tissue repair”. It was from her that I first got the idea to apply a plantain poultice to a sprained ankle when I was in Prague several years ago.  I experienced near-miraculous results: overnight I went from not being able to walk to barely noticing my injury.

I hoped to replicate my previous success with plantain this time in Turkey. I just had to find some.

Fortunately, the next day of the trip we went to visit the Süleymaniye mosque, which is set in a patch of parkland overlooking Istanbul. Making my way slowly with a crutch borrowed from the hotel, I studied the lawn for the telltale oval ribbed leaves of plantain. At last, they appeared!

Pointing my crutch at the ground, I flagged down the friend closest to me. “I found the plant, I found the plant!” I cried. “Can you harvest some of those leaves for me?” 

She was kind enough to get down on the ground and take a handful of plantain. Although the leaves were small, I decided they would do.

Later in the afternoon, we visited local Turkish friends in a home with a large garden. There I found even bigger plantain leaves.

Back at the hotel I washed the big and small plantain leaves together, twisting and tearing them and then steeping them briefly in hot water. Once cool I put the poultice into a little net bag and applied it to my ankle. (Alternatively, you could apply the leaves directly to your skin and secure the poultice with a towel.) I left it on for a little more than an hour and went to bed. 

In the morning, I was able to walk without a crutch again.  And I was so grateful to be able to participate fully in the rest of the trip: climbing stairs in restaurants and hotels, getting on buses and planes, walking around the cities we were visiting.

For me that makes for my second plantain “miracle”, but there is so much more this humble little plant can do. In her book Conversations with Plants, Nikki goes on to say: “It is excellent for treating inflammation in the gut, the urinary system and the respiratory system (bronchitis, sinusitis, laryngitis and much more). A tea can be used to bathe sore eyes, and it can also be used for ear problems. The leaves can be placed in the shoes or socks to prevent blisters and keep the feet fresh.”

In Thomas Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, plantain is said to be “one of the most versatile of herbal medicines. All body tissues feel its beneficient influence.” He lists uses ranging from chronic blood disorders, diabetes, kidney and bladder disorders, to excess menstrual loss, skin disorders, bleeding gums, acne, sexually transmitted infections and even snake bites!

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