Monday, March 5, 2012
Downy Rattlesnake Plantain-Hidden Winter Healing
The downy rattlesnake plantain is not actually a plantain. It is one of our Eastern evergreen orchids that loves dry, sandy woods. The reason it is called plantain is because medicinally it has been used for many of the same ailments as common plantain. It has fuzzy leaves like a mullein plant but it is much smaller, often hiding in pine forests or upland hardwoods. The true identifying traits of this orchid is the white veins that gives the small leaves a snake-like pattern. In winter the small fuzzy rosette is actually more interesting than the tiny green/white flowers on a short stalk in late summer.
Downy rattlesnake plantain is a plant that not many people now a-days use for healing. Mainly because in some of its habitat it has become quite rare. Other places, like the Wisconsin sand barrens you'll find them everywhere. On many of the ridges that run through my farm they are thick as the non-native plantain that grows in lawns. As an evergreen, they are often the best winter plant for cuts and burns that you may get while walking out in the woods. That may be another reason it isn't as well used in this day and age, many people (wisely?) hole up in the winter and aren't as foolish as I am wandering around in the snowy woods. lol
Pine forests are the best places to look for this plant in the winter time. Often under pines there are areas where the snow doesn't reach the ground, leaving open area to find some of the hidden evergreen plants that hide out in the winter months.
As I said above, the main use that I have used this tiny plant for is to crush the leaf up, either by mashing it with a rock, in a mortar and pestle or, as most old granny women have done, by chewing it briefly to get the juices flowing from the leaf. Then the leaf is bandaged or wrapped around a burn or cut to help sooth and cool the area. It helps shrink the tissue and slow or stop bleeding. It is much safer than putting snow on the burn and perhaps causing further damage to the tissue from freezing. It also helps build a barrier between the wound and bacteria. It isn't as strong of a healer as common plantain, so in the summer, that is what I would reach for first, but in the winter it is one of the best healing plants to be found.
Other ways I've used it was to help break a fever by sweating the body. Drinking its leaves in a hot, strong tea will make you sweat. It also can be mashed a bit and wrapped around a tooth or stuffed in a cavity to take away pain.
My aunt use to use the leaves in teas to help pass kidney stones, because not only does it make you sweat, it makes you pee too. Most kinds of bladder problems can be help with this plant, though I would recommend making real cranberry juice from frozen cranberries (don't buy cranberry juice from the store for healing, it usually is mostly apple juice with a bit of cranberry for flavor), and drinking this first. My aunt also use to wrap leaves around her knuckles for pain from arthritis. As a poultice it does seem to help with pain, though again, common or English plantain works better and is easier to find.
As a child I remember a different use for this plant, one that would qualify more as a folk remedy than something that has actual proof behind it. My uncles, who were rattlesnake hunters back when it was legal, use to carry a few leaves of this plant to chew on and swallow the juices in case they were bit. Timber rattlesnakes though aren't as aggressive as many of the southern snakes, so they never were bit. I wouldn't want to trust my life to that cure, but I can remember the uncles picking a few leaves and sticking them in their pockets 'just in case'. :-)
While this little woodland orchid makes a good healing plant this time of year if you know where to look for it, I reserve it only for winter emergencies where I am out in the woods and it's the only healing plant around. We have plenty of it on the dry ridges around here, but it is a plant that needs to be saved as much as possible. I see it as a sacred gift that I use only when needed.