The Barefoot Herbalogist: Plantago Asiatica

by Dave Jones on July 26, 2011

in The Barefoot Herbalogist

The Barefoot Herbalogist: Investigating Plantago Asiatica

While off on his summer vacation, Herbalogic Director of Production, David Jones, is spending time investigating the herbs beneath his feet. Here’s his latest finding.

I am spending a good part of the summer watching a ranch up in central Washington, nestled in the North Cascades. It is nice to get north and be in the kind of climate where you want to be outside for the entirety of the long long days up here. The sun comes over ridge at about 4:45am and goes behind Grouse Mountain about 7:00pm, but the sky stays light until 9:30.

This is good agricultural country because it has really rich volcanic soils and pretty much, if you water it, it will grow, so the diversity of plants here is staggering. Most of them are more likely to have a purpose in Native American medicine but a lot of them are plants that were or are common in China and are a part of Chinese herbal medicine. I found myself literally stepping all over them and thought I would put together a couple of blog entries cataloging some of these easy to spot plants and what they are used for.

One of the most common of these plants is in such abundance that it is almost impossible to stand in any one part of the lawn or pasture and not be able to see one. You might recognize it from the drawing, but I would guess most people didn’t know it was called Plantago Asiatica, Asian Plantain. (Not be be confused with the plantains that are more like bananas) Herbalists most likely will know the herb Che Qian Zi, which is the seed of this plant, but the plant itself is called Che Qian Cao.

This plant has been being used as a food plant since prehistory, (I chewed on one of the leaves and had a hard time imagining a dressing that would stand up to that in a salad) but it was first classified in the Divine Husbandman’s classic of the material medica about 1800 years ago in the second century.

This plant is a prolific self-seeder with each plant able to make over 1000 seeds which is great because the seeds are so frequently used by Chinese herbalists and this might explain the name some. This plant is one of those plants that grows really well in disturbed areas like roadsides or even dirt roads and the name || Che (车)-wheeled vehicle || Qian (前)- before || Cao (草) – plant. Translation: plant that grows everywhere in front of the horse carts.

There are hundreds of species within the genus Plantago and they all have similar functions and can be used interchangeably. One of the more interesting species and close relations to Plantago Asiatica is Plantago psyllium. The husks of the seed compartment are psyllium husks and used commercially in a lot of laxatives as an insoluble fiber as they absorb a lot of water and help move stool through the bowel.

In Chinese medicine the plant and seeds are primarily used for urinary issues, that is what I remember it for from school, but it is also used topically for rashes and bug bites and there are some pretty hungry mosquitos up here, so the next time I get a bite, I might just try to crush up some Plantago and see if it eases the itching.

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