More than a listing of plant types and general facts, Guild to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Second Edition (Chicago Review Press, 2014) is full of fascinating folklore, personal anecdotes, and tasty recipes perfect for anyone who is interested in living closer to the earth. Christopher Nyerges — co-director of the School of Self-Reliance — offers hikers, campers and foragers an array of tips for harvesting and consuming wild edibles. Ribwort, also known as plaintain, is a common weed that yields a number of health benefits.
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Plantain Plantago major and P. lanceolata
Plantain Family: Plantaginaceae
Common Names: ribwort, English plantain, white man’s foot
Most Prominent Characteristics of Ribwort
Overall Shape and Size: P. major was named “white man’s foot” by the Native Americans, since the plant closely followed the European advance in North America. P. major grew around all of the earliest frontier settlements. Today, plantain is as common a city weed as dandelion, although not as commonly known by name. If left alone, the entire plant can grow to about 1 foot across, with the seed stalks rising from 1 1/2 to 2 feet tall. Typically, the plants hide in lawns, much like dandelion.
Leaves: The plant’s leaves all radiate from the base in a rosette fashion, with the basal leaves reaching from six inches to one foot. P. lanceolata’s leaves are prominently ribbed with parallel veins, which converge at their bases into a broad petiole about two inches long. P. major has large glabrous leaves, up to six inches long, roundish or ovate shaped. P. lanceolata has erect lanceolate leaves covered with soft short hairs; they reach up to a foot long and taper at the base into a slender petiole.
Flowers: The 1/8- to 1/4-inch flowers are arranged in dense spikes on simple leafless stalks arising up to two feet. Each greenish flower is composed of four sepals, a small corolla, and four stamens (sometimes two). The flowers are covered by dry, scarious bracts.
Seeds: Each flower matures into a two-celled seed capsule, and the flowers are formed in spikes. Each spike is about one to two inches long. The spikes arise on stalks which can be up to two feet tall, but typically are about nine inches.
Beneficial Properties of Ribwort
Edible Properties of Ribwort: The tough fibers of the leaves make them difficult to digest. The young tender leaves of spring are the best to eat; use in salads or as you would spinach. The leaves that have become more fibrous with age need longer cooking; they are best chopped finely or pureed and cooked in a cream sauce. The leaves have a mild laxative effect. One hundred grams of the leaf (about 1/2 cup) contain 184 milligrams of calcium, 52 milligrams of phosphorous, 277 milligrams of potassium, and 2,520 micrograms of beta carotene.
The seeds can be eaten once cleaned by winnowing. The seeds can be ground into flour and used as you would regular flour. They can also be soaked in water until soft and then cooked like rice. Once cooked, the seeds are slightly mucilaginous and bland. They can be eaten plain or flavored with honey, butter, or other seasoning. The seeds are eaten by birds and other small mammals in the wild. One hundred grams of the seed contain 339 milligrams of potassium and 305 milligrams of phosphorus.
Medicinal Uses of Ribwort: Eating ribwort is said to have a healing effect on ulcers. Cooked plantain leaves have been used as a direct poultice on boils. Plantain and poppy heads can be mixed together and applied on wounds to kill pain. Plantain is a vulnerary (promotes healing) and is noted for its styptic, antiseptic, and astringent qualities. Shoshoni people used the cooked leaves as a poultice for wounds.
Patricia Earl of Laurel Canyon, California, reports that her family has long used the plantain leaves for healing. Her great-grandmother, Wilhelmina, who was from Germany, moved into the Minnesota area and learned about plantain from the local Native Americans in the years just after the Civil War. Since then, the family has used plantain leaves numerous times with miraculous results. For example, an Uncle Jake had a circulatory problem, which resulted in skin sores. To heal the sores, he placed crushed plantain leaves directly on the wounds, and they healed. In another instance, Patricia’s son, Michael, accidentally jumped onto a board with a 16 penny nail sticking straight up. He was about 9 or 10 years old at the time, and the nail went through his tennis shoe and all the way through his foot. Patricia’s mother, who lived about 20 minutes away, immediately brought fresh plantain leaves over and applied them to the top and bottom of Michael’s foot. They did not go to a hospital, though Michael’s foot was beginning to swell and he had some pain. Six hours later there was no swelling and no pain. Patricia reports that they used primarily the broadleaf plantain.
Early American colonists used plantain on insect and venomous reptile bites and used the seeds for expelling worms.
Boerhaaue, an 18th-century European botanist, recommended binding plantain leaves to sore and tired feet to relieve the fatigue of long hikes.
Chewing the root is reported to stop toothaches. The green seeds boiled in milk or a tea of the dried leaves will stop diarrhea.
The husks of the seeds of a related plant, Plantago ovata, commonly called psyllium, are sold in some markets. They are supposed to cleanse the colon, although the labels of the psyllium husks rarely say this. One is advised to stir one to two tablespoons of the psyllium husks into a glass of water or fruit juice and to drink the mixture in the morning. Readers who consume psyllium husks may wish to experiment with the husks of the common wild plantain seeds.
Detrimental Properties of Ribwort
We’d appreciate authenticated reports from readers.
Where Ribwort Can Be Found
This European native grows best in rich soil; it tends to stay small in poor soil. Plantain is found all over the United States in agricultural lands, along streams (P. major especially), along walkways, in gardens, lawns, and waste places.
Growing Cycle of Ribwort
Plantain is a perennial. New leaves are produced each spring, a flower stalk arises in early summer, and the seeds mature in mid to late summer.
More from Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants
Reprinted with permission from Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants: Second Edition by Christopher Nyerges and published by Chicago Review Press, 2014. Buy this book from our store: Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Second Edition.