No relation to the tropical, banana-like plant with the same common name, plantain is a common weed with edible leaves and seeds. It is also one of the best herbal remedies for scrapes, bug bites, and bee stings.
If you have a sunny driveway, you probably have some plantain growing along it. Plantago (plantain’s scientific name) loves sunny places with disturbed soils and is common in lawns, parks, and gardens.
All of the plantains have in common that their leaves grow in a low rosette, and that the leaves have prominent, stretchy, parallel veins. If you pull off one of the leaves from the plant you’ll often see those veins sticking out of the stalk like threads (think celery). The leaves have smooth edges or a few soft teeth.
Plantago major (common plantain) has wide, oval leaves. P. rugelii (Rugel’s plantain) leaves are the same shape as common plantain’s, but with red or purplish coloration on the leaf stalks. P. lanceolata (narrow-leaved or English plantain) has narrow leaves that can grow anywhere from a few inches to a foot long, but are almost never more than an inch wide.
All three species have flowers and seed heads that emerge from the center of the leaf rosette on leafless stalks. Plantago lanceolata has 1- to 2-inch seed heads with tiny white flowers. The seed heads of both P. major and P. rugelii. cover most of their stalks and start out with green, scale-like seeds that eventually turn black or brown.
Plantain is an invasive plant and you do not have to worry about over-harvesting it. Gather the leaves spring through fall.
Harvest the seeds after they’ve turned brown or black. I don’t bother trying to winnow the chaff from the tiny seeds - just think of it as extra fiber.
Use the smaller leaves raw in salads. Use the larger leaves to make chips. You can substitute plantain leaves for kale in any kale chip recipe: those stringy veins actually become an asset, adding extra crunch to the chips once they’re dried.
Add the seeds to crackers, breads, muffins, etc.
Plantain leaves are anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving. They are an herbal remedy that works wonders on mosquito bites, bee stings, and minor cuts and scrapes. The simplest way to use them is to crush up a leaf and rub it on the bite or scrape. You can also turn the leaves into an herbal ointment. But by far the most effective way to use plantain (if you aren’t grossed out by it) is to make a spit poultice. Chew one of the leaves for a moment and then applying the wad of chewed up leaf.
Leda Meredith is the author of Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries. You can watch her foraging and food preservation videos, and follow her food adventures at Leda's Urban Homestead. Her latest book is Preserving Everything: Can, Culture, Pickle, Freeze, Ferment, Dehydrate, Salt, Smoke...and More.
The traditional uses, chemical constituents and biological activities of Plantago major L. A review, Department of Pharmacognosy, School of Pharmacy, University of Oslo, Norway, accessed July 2, 2015.
Health Benefits of Plantain Leaf, Global Healing Center, accessed July 2, 2015.Photos by Leda Meredith
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