A tale of folk herbalism – a story about Greater Plantain

Not bananas nor laceolata

The name may be confusing. Many people know that plantains are like bananas. But this herb is very different. It is a small herbaceous plant with a rosette of leaves. It has a few stems that grow from the centre that are topped by a spike of tiny greenish-brown flowers. The plant rarely reaches a height of 70cm. It does not grow bananas, nor any fruit for that matter.

Greater Plantain may also be confused with Ribwort. These plants are similar as they are two different species within the genus Plantago. Ribwort, Plantago laceolata, has more slender leaves compared to Greater Plantain, Plantago major. All the plants of Plantago genus are generally referred to as Plantain.

Folk use

Greater Plantain, also known as Common Plantain, was introduced to me in my mother tongue as Llanten. It is an ubiquitous herb worldwide and it is abundant in the southern regions of my original homeland, Chile. Chileans being avid black tea drinkers, this herb is a popular choice for a non-caffeinated tea alternative. While it is often drank as a herbal tea for general wellness, some people may know about its specific folk uses. One of those uses is cancer. What follows below is a little tale about Great Plantain use for cancer. Read on!


When I lived in the Lakes Region in southern Chile I met a couple, late in their middle age. She was a devoted housewife and mother. He was a hardy mechanic who worked in his backyard workshop. I got to know this couple very well, and so over the time they told me that about 25 years previous, he had developed brain cancer and suffered a stroke. This was very surprising as he looked like a very healthy person and appeared to live his life as if cancer had never been a part of it. But it had, and it had almost killed him.

To resolve it, he had undergone chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It made him physically very weak. He lost his hair, was bed-ridden and did not work for two years. She, had to start working to support the family and became his carer on top of her mother and housekeeper obligations. One of the ways she helped his recovery was to give him Greater Plantain tea. She wildcrafted it locally. He eventually achieved a full recovery.

Exertion and resilience

I am not suggesting that Greater Plantain resolved his cancer, but I do think it may have helped. I say that this man was hardy because despite his age he was very healthy, active, and strong. Plus, he had recovered without apparent long-term effects. While I am not entirely sure about the exact role of Greater Plantain in this case of total remission, I strongly believe his overall recovery was multifactorial and had a lot to do with his good health and strong constitution.

This man had grown up in an extremely poor family who lived and worked on the land of wealthy landowners. The early death of his father forced him to become a main income earner for the family at 15. At this age, where most kids are nearing the end of high school and spending lots of time partying with friends, he had it very tough. He would wake up at 5am to tend to cows in the cold mornings. Then he would walk for two hours to get to work, in town, often arriving completely drenched from the rain. (The Lakes Region is a very rainy part of the world.) Once at work he would change into dry clothes, leaving the wet clothes by the heater so they could dry in time for night school. Once night school ended, he walked two hours back home, often in the rain again. By the time his head hit the pillow, it was almost midnight, meaning he could sleep for about 5 hours to then wake up and do it all again.

He did this for about 4 years, after which he became a hard-working mechanic. His company eventually rewarded his work ethic by promoting him into a highly stressful role previously done by two people. This particular stage of life was ended by cancer and stroke.

A multi-factorial resolution

So as I said, I do believe that the herb helped. The allopathic treatment may also have helped. But I’m sure that there was something else. There were probably a few other important factors, like having a devoted carer, a loving wife, a son to live for and a newfound validation for self-care and self-love. Perhaps it is also attributable to a healthy life (within the parameters of his socioeconomic situation) and a strong physical and mental constitution.

Traditional knowledge

While Greater Plantain is a common sidewalk “weed” in many parts of the world, it is not so much in Sydney, my hometown. When I returned from Chile, I found it very disappointing that it was so hard to come by. It is not a herb I use in clinical practice. I didn’t get much training around it during my studies, and it doesn’t come up often in my continuing herbal education.

The monographs I have read over the years never state that Greater Plantain is indicated for cancer. The indications listed in the monographs include conditions like cystitis with haematuria, calculus, haemorrhoids, urinary tract infections, cough, glandular disease, diarrhoea, nerve pain, insect bites and stings, skin infections and others. For a while, this made me think that the wonderful folk use of Greater Plantain described above was incorrect and misguided.

My findings

Recently however, I found out that Plantain species can soothe gastric inflammation. This means it could help ease the gastrointestinal side-effects of chemotherapy. Also, in Chinese medicine certain Plantain species are classified as herbs that clear heat and toxins. This suggests an anti-inflammatory action in cancer is possible. Also, that it may help to eliminate the toxins of chemotherapy.

I also came across a bit research. An in vitro study published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine looked at the cytotoxic effect of two Plantain species. The study concluded that hot water extracts of Plantago major and Plantago asiatica possess a broad-spectrum of antileukemia, anticarcinoma and antiviral activities, as well as activities which modulate cell-mediated immunity.1 Not too shabby for tea made with a sidewalk weed!

Disclaimer: It is critical to get a professional guidance when utilising herbs. If you would like to ask a naturopath about taking this herb click here. A naturopath can also help you source a good quality, uncontaminated and unadulterated herb. This is important to ensure you obtain the maximum therapeutic value.

Best wishes!

Chiang L-C, Chiang W, Chang M-Y, Lin C-C. In Vitro Cytotoxic, Antiviral and Immunomodulatory Effects of Plantago major and Plantago asiatica. The American journal of Chinese medicine. 2003;31:225-34.