Lupins! But I’m not going to write about them today. Well okay, maybe just for a moment. They’ve hit the stage this past week. They are a gorgeous invasive species, so gorgeous in fact that most of us say, bring them on! Those calendar colours of purple and pink, the odd white one and even rarer splashy coral one. This time of year they sweep across the meadows of PEI like a magician’s cloak, like a Caribbean sea. When you look at them closely, you see that their little heart shaped petals are often bi-coloured: the pink ones accessorized with fuchsia, the blue ones with purple. Surely, there could be no deeper purple than lupine purple! Blues and purples, purples and blues: lupines have got to be the most extravagant wild flowers in the whole opera, divas with swooping fronds. They are about as irresistible to a visiting photographer as a cinematic PEI sunset.
But today, June 19th, I am not writing about lovely lupins. I want to talk about their humble, one might almost say ugly, second, third, fourth,removed cousin: the noble, the magnificent the lowly plantain (Plantago major). Of all the medicinal herbs I know, plantain is the one from which I have experienced the most miraculous results. If you were to take a first aid kit with you into the wilds, you would be wise to pack plantain along with your band aids and aspirin. Of course you wouldn’t need to pack plantain, not at this time of year anyway. It’s everywhere! It arrived with the first European settlers, hence the Native name, “White man’s footprint.”
If spectacular lupin is balm for the soul, humble plantain is balm for the body—it will ease the sting of just about anything.
As I say, it’s not pretty, at least not in any obvious way. Plantain’s stringy ribs are conspicuous in its leathery oval leaves. When you tear a leaf from the main stem, the ribs pull out like strings in celery. Plantain is often dry and dusty; I am not sure why. It is not particularly pleasing to the touch either. Bugs, or some kind of critter, like it, so, more often than not, there are jagged holes in the leaves and the tips are chewed off. It is, as I said, everywhere so if one leaf is chewed, there’s always another one close by. Wherever there’s a spindly blade of grass that has somehow managed to crack the sidewalk or the parking lot, you will probably find plantain there as well. How can something this ubiquitous, this tough and scruffy be so wonderful?
Plantain is the antidote to most stings, that’s how.
I’ve lathered my grandson’s mosquito bitten body with plantain oil or with chewed leaves and he was soothed at once. If a bee or spider stings you, you have merely to tear off a plantain leaf (most likely right at your feet), chew it into a gooey pulp (that doesn’t sound nice, and it isn’t particularly nice; plantain doesn’t taste that good—it’s not terrible but it isn’t good) and apply the pulp to the sting. The relief is instantaneous, miraculous! I chewed up a leaf for a boy I met at a wedding who had been stung by a bee. The reception was held at a golf course and I found some plantain on the green. He looked dubious when this chubby old lady offered him a slobbery piece of chewed leaf and instructed him to place it on the spot. But after checking to see that no one was watching, he tentatively placed the medicine on his arm. His relief was evident.
Last year I was out in Vancouver visiting my younger son. One day I stood waiting for the bus, minding my own business. I gazed down the road to see if I could spot the #55, or whatever it was, when out of nowhere, a hornet torpedoed down from the sky and stung the base of my thumb, then flew off to nail the next hapless victim. The pain was violent, wild; it was one of those stings where you could feel the venom entering your blood stream, coursing up your arm. I felt faint— really and truly poisoned.
The bus was due any minute. I searched among the pop cans, torn chip bags, broken glass flanking the Vancouver sidewalk. There had to be some plantain somewhere! At last, just moments before the bus pulled up, I spotted one, no bigger than a dime, covered in dust and saturated with car fumes, no doubt pissed on by dogs and other mammals—a sad little specimen. But I picked it at once, chewed it (I’m sorry Reader, but I was desperate) and applied the sticky dot of masticated plantain on my sting, then entered the bus, awkwardly fishing for change. Within seconds, the shrieking pain began to subside. I pressed this teensy bit of miracle to the angry swollen bite on my thumb, and it worked its magic.
There’s so much plantain everywhere (except on a Vancouver sidewalk apparently!) that it’s easy to dismiss to say, oh that again, ho hum. Just there, endless amounts of it in amongst the grass and bedstraw, clover and buttercups. But oh what a gift it is. Plantain, the humblest of them all and the most deserving of our praise!