Friday, 24 July 2015
Plantain - what I know
(Originally published 26 September 2014 here )
I remember walking barefoot down gravel roads as a kid, my sneakers tied together by their laces and hanging off my shoulder.
When you walk barefoot, you learn to walk where the soft plants grow. Along the edges of gravel roads and on every foot path on the outskirts of that prairie town grew a flat leaved plant that was cool underfoot. Plantain.
In those days, almost every child was somewhat feral all summer long. My friend Dawn and I roamed fields and swamps, and took breaks from the sun in the cool of a certain clearing in what passed for forest in Saskatchewan. Looking back, I know the trees were small but to us they were giants, friendly giants. To us the clearing was a magical place populated by fairies. We'd lie down on the cool plantain covered ground, telling each other stories, and after a while our sunburned arms and mosquito ravaged legs would feel better. We thought it was the fairies. Now I know it was the plantain. And maybe the fairies, too.
I don't know who first taught me that you should chew on plantain and spit it onto bites or stings. That memory, and others I should have about my first plant lessons are lost to me, it is as though I've always just known. It may have been Granny Claire, the Metis woman who was a sort of nanny to me most of my childhood. Except for her brown skinned, beautifully wrinkled face, Granny looked for all the world like a typical Anglican church lady, white hair in that curled, helmet style of the 60's, horn rimmed glasses and her purse carried on her arm just so, like the Queen.
But when we were alone, she'd speak to me in Cree and became, in my eyes, one of the Ancients, all mystery and wisdom. That language, so close to the land it sprang from, that she spoke while we walked in the place of its creation, must have contained within it seeds that planted themselves in my being. I don't understand Cree any more so the words are gone, but the plants are still with me. In me.
So to me, plantain is the feeling of it, so cool underfoot, and a knowing I can't explain. No matter where I am, even in the busiest districts in the downtown of the city - perhaps especially there - it pushes its way up through sidewalk cracks and tells me I am not far from home. Plantain is family to me.
Over the years, other teachers and larnin' from books have added to the ways that I know plantain. I've put its leaves, when young and tender, into many a frugal soup or stew when the closest store offered nothing but canned goods. When that lifelong bugaboo of mine, mouth discomfort, flares, a chewed leaf has soothed my gums. I've made mouth washes with it, and even a nasal spray that saved my husbands sinuses. I've put it in an eye wash formula for pink eye so a kid could avoid those awful, painful drops. When picking particularly brutal nettles I've used a large leaf to protect my hand.
I've read - but never tried it - that the seeds can be cooked in oatmeal. It's a cousin of the plantago species used in Metamucil, and I have no doubt I'd reach for it instead of that weird "bulking agent" if I needed that sort of help.
My favourite use for plantain is to make an ointment. I pick leaves that are as fresh and green as I can find them, without little holes from slugs. That's a tall order, since slugs are particularly fond of plantain (and who can blame them) but the holes contain the beginnings of decay and will spoil the preparation. The leaves must not have a drop of moisture on them, so must be picked, like any herb not going into a tincture, after 3 days of sunny weather. I chop them fine and put them in a small jar, then cover them with olive oil and put it somewhere away from sunlight. This maceration, as it's called, has to be watched carefully at first, since the leaves will poke up above the surface of the oil and if they're not poked back down they'll molder and spoil the batch. Once I'm sure it's behaving, into a dark cupboard it goes for at least a month.
Or sometimes a year or more.
I've found ancient, dust covered jars of this stuff in the back of my somewhat chaotic apothecary cabinet that are absolutely fine, far better than the oil alone would have fared. This speaks to me that plantain may have some preservative qualities, although I've never seen that directly referenced in any book. This is the beauty of doing for oneself, such snippets of useful information are learned here and there.
I strain the oil, which can take quite a while by the way, into a very small pot, and put this over another, double boiler style. The water must be just barely simmering, as any steam that condenses into the preparation will make it go off. Once the oil is just, oh, I'd say "quite warm" to the touch, I grate some beeswax and add it. How much? Sorry, can't say. Just some. It melts in, and I test the consistency by dipping in a spoon and letting it cool for a moment, kind of like testing jelly. Once I have it to a spreadable consistency, I pour that into a clean dry jar. It's important to know it should never get so hot that you can't use your finger to stir it. Anything hotter will weaken the medicine.
This makes a wonderful lip balm or protective skin cream to use before going out to shovel snow. It can be used as a diaper cream, too.
This is also the world's best treatment for hemorrhoids. It will soothe them, it will shrink them, it will prevent infection and if at the same time you do something about what is causing them, they will not return. Not that this is an issue for us very often, but I like to keep it around. I often end up giving it away and some people have been very, very grateful for that.
In nature, plantain's job is to protect the soil. When everything else has been stripped away, plantain comes along and covers the ground like a bandage. It keeps moisture in and stops the wind from taking the top soil.
Plantain isn't glamorous or exotic. It's a sturdy, serviceable plant that is always good at what it is good for. You can rely on plantain and you can always find plantain. I like that in a friend.