This little plant is probably my favorite foraging plant. Commonly called a plantain, the true name for these plants are “Plantago”. They have no relation at all to bananas but are just as useful!
Originally a european plant, it was brought to america by settlers. Because of it’s wide variety of uses this plant was cultivated, but then went wild becoming a common weed in most lawns growing at the edges of concrete, like sidewalks and roads. The most common kind is the one featured above, the broad-leaf plantain. Most plantains are edible, but since plantains contain around 200 different species, in this case I am just going to be covering the broad leaf plantain (Plantago Major). This is the most common and most useful of all the species and shows up just about everywhere in the world. Remember that if you find a plantain that is not the broad-leaf variety, you should look up it’s individual properties before consumption… However, most are safe to eat.
Leaves as Food
The leaves of this plant are packed with nutrients including high levels of calcium and vitamin A. They also have very high levels of vitamins C and K. Biting into a young tender plantain leaf will bring you back to your literal salad days as they taste a bit like a cross between babyleaf spinach and a mild radish! It’s like having a whole salad in your mouth in one bite. It’s a really nice flavor with a hearty crunch. Because of the high calcium levels this green is especially good for older women and should only be fed in moderation to people or animals that respond poorly to calcium like rabbits. Older leaves are tough and chewy and could be stewed or used in thick dishes that could benefit from some green, like curry or oxtail soup.
Seeds as Food
Tedious, and hard to gather, the seeds of the plantain can also be eaten. These seeds are packed with fiber! They can be used much like a grain, eaten straight, boiled as a cereal or ground into a flour. I can’t attest to the flavor or cooking properties of this; I have never bothered eating the seeds. Please take special note that in many species the seed husks are a laxative.
Leaves as Medicine
The leaves of the Plantago plant have many uses, but they are actually a strong healing plant grounded in science. I have actually used these leaves on cuts since I was a little girl. Mashed into a poultice, the leaves of this plant are a pain killer, an antimicrobial and antiseptic, and they also speed cell regeneration! (Whaaat!?) This is not some hippie BS factoid either; this has been scientifically tested and proven. Rubbing crushed leaves on a wound that’s been rinsed in water is a great way to clean it out and prevent infection. The leaves can also be boiled into a tea that can be used to soothe bowel irritation and diarrhea. This plant is AMAZING.
Because of it’s intense medical and nutritional properties, if you have a significant health concern like irritable bowel syndrome, cancer or a recent belly surgery, please consult with your doctor before eating or using this plant in any way.
Seeds and Roots as Medicine
The roots of this plant have shown no exceptionally edible properties and I wouldn’t eat them; but the roots of this plant can be used much the same way as the leaves as an antiseptic. The husks on the seeds can be a powerful laxative and are actually used in commercial over the counter products like Metamucil!
The leaves of this plant have long, tough fibers in them and when they get large, they can be harvested and woven into rope. This plant is also known for it’s extrodinary positive effects on soil. This plant thrives in foot traffic and poor conditions and leaves the soil better than when it started. The plant simultaneously breaks up hard-pack soils and the root system helps hold the soil in place as nutrient levels are restored, preventing erosion.
Identifying the Plantain
The most important thing to look for on a plantain is the veins on the leaves. Leaf shape can vary a lot, but in general they have smooth, wide leaves. However, depending on the soil they grow in, how big they are and local pests, while the leaf shape may vary, but the veins never will. They will branch out from the stem of the leaf smoothly and curve around before coming close together at the tip edge of the leaf, giving the leaves their wide, ovular shape.
The plantain grows low to the ground, at or below the level of cut grass. It’s flat leaves branch out from a single, low point and spread out to cover as much ground-space as possible. It’s flower and seed stalks are very distinctive, being tall and very thin cones coming from the main root of the plant, often curving slightly as they rise up. This is one of the easiest to identify wild plants and is probably one of the most diverse in it’s uses!
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. As always, practice safe foraging techniques; wear gloves, be aware of any poisonous animals, bugs or plants that are near by, and always make a careful ID based off of photographs before eating. Happy foraging!