Life is filled with minor scrapes, cuts, bites, stings, bumps and bruises – especially when you work outside. In case you’re in a situation where you don’t have your full med kit on hand, or if you are just looking for alternatives to over the counter salves and wound creams, check out these wound care weeds. These four plants – plantain, shepherd’s purse, chickweed and yarrow – are very common weeds found throughout most temperate areas of the world. All four of them speed healing and have historically been used for wound care. They are also very easy to identify, which makes them handy for the beginning herbalist. They are all on my list of “don’t pull too many of those out” weeds in the garden. For our first wound care weed, let’s start with plantain
Common Plantain, Plantago major and Narrowleaf Plantain (Ribwort), Plantago lanceolata
Both Common Plantain and Narrowleaf Plantain have similar medicinal properties (as do many of the 250 or so Plantago species worldwide), so I’ll refer to them simply as “plantain”. Narrowleaf plantain tends to be juicier and and generally preferred by herbalists, but Common Plantain is abundant in my yard and garden and has been serving me well for years. These should not be confused with the banana-like fruit called plantain ((Musa paradisiaca).
I was first introduced to plantain as a child by my grandmother Catherine, who called it “medicine leaf” and said the Indians used to use it. It was a common weed in yards and gardens, but we never did anything with it except pull it out. I sure wish I had known then what I know now!
Fast forward about three decades, and I started to learn about wildcrafting – using weeds for food and medicine. Imagine my surprise when I found out this humble weed was possibly the most awesome thing ever for taking the itch out of mosquito bites, relieving the pain of bee stings and nettle stings, and acting as a natural wound healer and inflammation reliever.
Plantain grows in basal rosettes close to the ground, like dandelions.
In midsummer, they shoot up seed stalks with rather tiny blossoms – no great show here.
The leaves are oblong ovals, and have distinctive ribs running their entire length, like celery. This is what gives rise to the name “ribwort” (wort is another name for herb). Below is a common plantain leaf. Narrowleaf plantain leaves are longer and skinnier.
To use the plantain, simply pick a fresh clean leaf (rinse it off if it is grimy), chew or crush to release the juices, and apply to the affected area. Hold or bandage in place until pain/itching subsides. For minor scrapes and cuts, apply and bandage. Replace every few hours, or as needed. Plantain leaves can also used to make a soothing tea for internal ailments such as coughs, IBS, hemorroids and hayfever. Just steep one or two fresh leaves per cup of hot water for ten minutes. The leaves can be frozen for winter use, or infused in oil to cover larger areas. The infused oil can then be used to make a salve. You can learn more about plantain in Weekly Weeder #14 – Common Plantain.
Shepherd’s Purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris
Shepherd’s Purse is a small, delicate weed, easily missed unless you are paying attention. Once you’ve learned to recognize it, you’ll likely find it in many areas of cultivated or disturbed ground. Like plantain, it grows in a rosette form close to the ground and shoots up 4 to 20 inch flower spikes.
The small, white four petaled flowers lead to seed packets that are shaped like tiny, heart shaped purses – thus the name “shepherd’s purse”. The seed stalks are the easiest way to identify this plant.
The fresh herb acts as a styptic, stopping blood flow. Crush the leaves and apply to cuts and nosebleeds. Shepherd’s purse tincture is used to treat internal bleeding, prolapses and larger wounds. Shepherd’s purse tea (made like plantain tea above) can be consumed every 2-3 hours to help regulate menstrual flow. You can read more about shepherd’s purse in Weekly Weeder #15 – Shepherd’s Purse.