Kids are natural born herb hunters. They may have their own names for the plants and weeds that surround their homes and play areas, but they do know exactly what’s growing where. You may have no clue (or interest) as to what’s growing underneath the deck in your backyard next to all the spiders and creepy crawlies, but chances are your kids do! That’s why it’s fun to teach kids a bit about wild plants and their uses. One easy-to-find plant I love to show to children is plantain (Plantago spp.). It’s simple to identify, kids will already recognize it as something they’ve probably picked dozens of times, and it’s got some good kid-friendly uses.
Plantain isn’t native to America. It came over with the pilgrims and explorers most likely as seed stuck to their shoes. Native Americans often referred to the plant as “white man’s footprint” because it seemed to go wherever the Europeans had tread. Even now, take a look along footpaths and heavily trafficked areas. You’ll be sure to find some plantain somewhere. One easy way to identify it is to look for the thick veins that run through the leaves. You should be able to carefully pull apart a leaf and pull that vein right out like a long thread.
So what can your kids do with plantain? They can certainly impress their friends when someone gets a mosquito bite! Taking a leaf from a plant, they can rub it on a fresh bite until their skin turns green from the juices of the leaf. The mosquito bite won’t itch very long and chances are it’ll be gone the next day. Plantain also works great for spider bites and bug stings. One can either rub the leaf between their hands and hold it on the sting or bite, or if feeling adventurous, chew up the leaf and place it on the wound as a poultice.
Plantain is also pretty good at removing splinters. Making a poultice in the same way as for a bug bite, you can keep it in place overnight with a bandage. It will draw out the splinter without any tears and wiggling. I tried this once on my son’s toe when we were at the beach. Barely old enough to walk, he managed to stumble over a thick piece of dried dune grass, and he got a very large splinter in his toe that we couldn’t remove. I grabbed a plantain leaf, chewed it up (a bit dry I gotta say), and put it on his toe with his sock to hold it in place. When we got home, the splinter had worked its way out enough so we could grab it with the tweezers.
One word of warning: If you teach your kids about backyard herbalism, be sure to stress the importance of good clean plants. That means not picking it from any yard with a treated lawn. No pesticides, herbicides, lawn fertilizers, insecticides etc. can have been on the yard for a whole year for above-the-ground parts, 3 years if you’re looking for roots. If your kids have a nice bit of woods or wild fields to play in, all the better. But if they decide to play in a neighbor’s yard and they want to pick some plantain, be sure they know to ask first whether or not the yard has been treated.
Learning something as simple as treating a mosquito bite with a common backyard “weed” is enough to open a child’s mind to the wonder of wild plants. It will help stir up an interest in nature, science, herbal medicine, and self-reliance that can become an important part of how they grow and learn. I can guarantee they’ll never forget the wonder of plantain, or the joy of discovering its secrets.