Discover the many edible and medicinal uses of plantains.
Follow in the footsteps of your ancestors – get to know the edible and medicinal uses of plantains.
It would actually take a book of its own to do justice to the many edible and medicinal uses of plantains. Much like other very common herbs covered here in these pages, such as shepherd’s purse and yarrow, humans have been foraging plantains pretty much for ever.
The genus Plantago contains two of our finest medicinal plants here in the UK and two other good edible species well worth knowing. Here they are:
Plantago lanceolata / P.major / P.ovata / P.coronopus / P.maritima
Ribwort, Greater plantain, Hoary plantain, Buckshorn plantain & Sea plantain
Worldwide, there are approximately 200 species of these mainly weedy and sometimes invasive annual, biennial, and perennial plants in the genus Plantago. Their generic name Plantago comes from the Latin Planta – soul of the foot.
Here in Britain, you will easily find at least four of the plantain tribe growing wild. Two of them almost exclusively live and flourish by the coast and estuaries. The other two are found in 99% of the country and are two of the most useful medicinal plants you can get your hands on. These are fantastic plants and easily identified.
It is likely that you are already familiar with ribwort (Plantago lanceolata) and ‘greater plantain’ also known as ‘rats-tail’ (P.major). These two plants are very common perennial herbs. They are never too far away in pretty much any urban and country setting. It may be that our long and intimate relationship with the plantains, through more than a few turnings of the great celestial wheel, has ensured their large numbers and close proximity. Before you can begin exploring the edible and medicinal uses of plantains, you need to be able to identify them.
Ribwort is a low-growing plant, with lanceolate leaves, approximately 15-25 cm long. Rats-tail plantain has much wider, broadly oval leaves with a noticeably wider and longer petiole.
Both species have distinctive white, raised veins on the undersides of the leaves. Stringy fibres are easily noticed when tearing the leaves They form basal rosettes before and during flowering.
Flowering spikes of both species can reach up to 45 cm high. These, and the buds are often being covered in fine silky hairs. The stems can be deeply furrowed in appearance.
Greater plantain’s inflorescence is larger than ribwort’s, occupying a greater ratio of the whole stem, but ribwort’s flowering stem is often larger in overall size yet with a much smaller, more delicate flower-head than the rats-tail.
The flowers of both species are produced without the need for petals. Initially the green buds give rise to pale creamy / yellow anthers. The flowers eventually turn brown when seeds are ripe.
Ribwort and rats-tail are very variable species. They will adapt their habit to environmental factors, being erect in tall vegetation but prostrate under grazing pressure. They can establish by spreading through vegetative means, ribwort especially so, and often appear in dense patches.
Neither of these plants are exceptionally frost hardy, but in our milder winters of late I’m seeing lots of ribwort persist, especially round the Atlantic coast.They both flower from April to August, and seeds ripen from June to September. The flowers are hermaphrodite and are pollinated by wind, flies and beetles.
These plants are noted for attracting wildlife; and so surely are worth a place undisturbed somewhere in your garden for this reason alone. Saying this, it will probably be impossible to completely eradicate the common plantains from your plot!
Their seeds contain a water retaining ‘gel’ made from mucilage, enabling them to germinate and grow in dry soils when other species cannot. If conditions are not favourable, the seed is long-lived and can sit in the soil for months or years waiting for the right conditions!
Habitats to look in when foraging plantain.
Plantain’s can grow on most soils including alkaline and nutritionally poor soils up to around 840 metres. They tolerate maritime exposure, establishing themselves in a wide range of conditions.
Ribwort plantain is often a significant component of flower-rich grasslands. Indeed, the plantain’s have been suggested as the most constant and widespread component of natural and semi-natural grassland in Britain.
They are found in all but the most acid grassland, appearing in meadow communities, grazed pasture, lawns, sea cliffs, and sand dunes. Although ribwort is frequently prominent in a grass sward, it is not dominant in the sense of excluding other species or limiting diversity (as shown by its constant presence in the most diverse grasslands). If you are not sure if the plantains are growing near you (they are!), then take a look at this map.
Britain’s three other common plantain herbs.
Amongst other plantain’s you may stumble across here in Britain will be the ‘Hoary’ plantain (Plantago media). This plant has ovate-lanceolate leaves, sort of halfway between greater plantain and ribwort. Leaves with 5 prominent ribs and flowers with purple tinged stamens. I still confuse hoary plantain leaves with fat ribwort leaves from a glance.
Hoary plantain has to be the prettiest plantain of the lot to my eye, looking more similar in form to ribwort than the rats-tail, but with gorgeous mauve anthers. Hoary plantain can often be found nearer the coast-line and can freely occur inland as well, but nowhere near as frequently as ribwort.
Hoary plantain is absent from most of Cornwall and Wales, but can be found elsewhere under elevations of 520 metres. I’ve seen a few on the Downs near the Gorge in Bristol, another maritime climate and setting.
Perhaps more exciting for wild-food foragers, is another native British plantain, the ‘Buckshorn plantain’ (Plantago coronopus). This species will also be found quite easily on and around our coastlines. This distinctive-looking plant will occur in coastal towns and villages, on shingle beaches, or on sandy grassy edges and all manner of different cliffs. Keep an eye out for it in grasslands in cities that are technically coastal, such as Bristol and London.
Buckshorn plantain has deeply divided, bi-pinnately-lobed leaves, with linear-lobed segments. The leaf shape provides easy identification. Both its name and branched foliage give rise to an allusion of antlers. Its flower is small, initially drooping and then producing a lovely little yellow display.
This may have been the plantain that old texts refer to when mentioning plantain’s use as a ‘sallet’ herb. Certainly, the other plantains mentioned are edible, but only the very youngest leaves are in any way enjoyable raw. Usually our two common plantains here in Britain are often too bitter anyway, no matter their size, unless the younger specimens are used.
Buckshorn plantain is a coastal lowland species and can be found at altitudes of 340 metres although sometimes on salt treated roads inland.
Along the coastline and estuaries you will come across the ‘sea plantain’ (Plantago maritima), which is another reasonably succulent wild salad or pottage herb.
As well as the drier areas of salt marsh, this plant enjoys shingle beaches, as well as sandy and rocky dunes and edges. It primarily loves the coastal environment, because the numerous cliffs and estuaries offer many niche habitats for a range of tasty edible plants. Sea plantain will sometimes provide an extensive covering of leaves.
Sea plantain has narrower leaves than ribwort. It is a more succulent-looking leaf. On the back you will see a singular, prominent, central mid-rib. The leaves are all attached to a woody crown. Its flowerering stem and flowers are more similar to the rats-tail plantain.
Edible and medicinal uses of plantain.
Parts used Leaves. Pre-flowering buds, seed husk, seeds.
Harvest Leaves, any time from spring to autumn.
Key constituents Mucilage; glycosides (including aucubin); tannins; minerals (including silica, zinc and potassium).
Actions Vulnerary, mildly anti-bacterial, bitter, anti-septic, astringent, demulcent, mildly expectorant, haemostatic, diuretic.
Pharmacology and uses The edible and medicinal uses of plantains are well documented. All of our well-known Western herbalists and herbal writers champion their virtues.
Both ribwort and greater plantain can be used to combat a number of ailments including catarrhal conditions, where rather than suppressing the symptoms, they can enable the body to deal with the causes of excessive catarrh.
On mainland Europe, ribwort is widely applied for hay fever and allergic conditions, where the mucous membranes are dry and or hyper-sensitive. It is of much use treating respiratory conditions.
Both plantains help to provide long term improvements in respiratory health. They can be recommended for a number of respiratory ailments, such as bronchitis, nasal catarrh and sinusitis, as well as middle ear complaints. Both plantains are particularly effective in treating these conditions in children. Once again this is due to their mucilage content.
Plantains act as calming, soothing expectorants, helping relax irritating coughs, especially where accompanied by general tightness of the airways. Ribwort tea is a wholesome, satisfying, tonic of a tea.
John Parkinson (1567-1650) documented that either of the plantains relieve “spitting of the blood” (one of the symptoms of tuberculosis, alongside irritation of the mucous membranes), and “for bloody or foul water by any ulcer in the kidney or bladder”.
Nicolas Culpeper (1616-1654) wrote that “plantains are special herbs for “staying all manner of the fluxes in man or woman” and are “singularly good herbs for those that are troubled with consumption of the lungs, or coughs that come of heat. He also mentions plantain herbs as “a good wound herb, to heal fresh or old wounds or sores, either outward or inward”.
The aucubin present in the leaves is anti-bacterial and is known to increase uric acid excretion by the kidneys. The micro-nutrient silica is known to promote lung tissue repair and zinc aids general healing and natural defences.
The mucilage content provides a relaxing expectorant action, and combined with the tannin content, provides a local, soothing effect on the gut lining and the skin.
The plantain herbs are indeed outstanding wound herbs. Like other traditionally used plants such as yarrow, plantain offer excellent first-aid, on the move, with no need for tears, plasters, first-aid-kits or nurses. If you cut yourself when out foraging, either ribwort or rats-tail will likely be near-by. Sorted!
To use in the wild, simply gather and chew a few of the leaves, then apply this ‘spit poultice’ to the afflicted area. Bleeding stops very quickly and broken flesh is rapidly ‘glued’ together due to the astringency of the tannins and demulcent mucilage components. The plantains are also mildly anti-septic, preventing infection.
The plantains can also be used against insect bites and stings. Once again simply scrunch the leaves until you get the juices flowing. Both the plantains are especially good for treating children suffering from these recurring afflictions.
Eating plantain. Ideas on how to use plantain in the kitchen
During a forage walk I hosted in Oxford, I met a Korean gentleman who reminisced about eating the rats-tail plantain leaves as a child at home. He mentioned that they cooked it as you would spinach, and said it was a commonly used vegetable in rural areas.
The esteemed forager Pascal Bauder demonstrates his method of cooking plantain that produces a seaweed-like texture. Other plantain recipes utilise the earthy, mushroom like flavour of leaves and flower buds. I like using plantain buds in May. I can quickly gather enough to make a tapenade, mixing olive oil, lemon juice salt and pepper, either in a pestle and mortar or nutri-bullet. Add more oil and or a splash of water to mix to a fluid paste consistency. Add to humus about half and half.
Try using sea plantain leaves in a pickle after blanching in boiling water for 30 seconds, or served as a lightly steamed sea vegetable served with pepper and a good squeeze of lemon juice.
If you harvest specimens with leaves still attached to the base stem, and cut them so the majority of them remain attached, try dunking in a spiced batter before frying and serving with a sweet chilli and soy dip. The battered plantain look like octopus on the plate!
Buckshorn plantain has recently become an increasingly popular addition to commercial salad production in South West England. You may find it called ‘minutina’ or ‘erba stella’ in seed catalogues. Its succulent crunchy leaves are good, given favourable conditions.
I have noticed that buckshorn can be almost hairless, or alternatively, almost woolly. They can approximate succulence every now and then, complete with a salty tang, but can also be liable to their fair share of stringy fibres, and sometimes taste bitter. Try the plant from numerous locations and times of year.
Plantains also offer us nutritious seeds. These can be added to meals as you might with linseeds, and ground into flour to make flat breads. The seeds of Plantago lanceolata are nutty and just big enough to be bothered about.
Globally known edible and medicinal uses of plantains – ‘psyllium’.
Psyllium is the name given to husk from seed of Plantago psyllium and P.indica and is freely available from many ethnic grocer shops as well as pharmacists. This remedy has been used for millennia in Asia, where it is known as ‘asashwagole’ as well as in North Africa and Europe. If necessary, say in a survival situation, the seed and husk could be collected from our native plantains, but it will take you quite a while to harvest the product.
Parts used Seeds
Key constituents Muco-polysaccharides within the mucilage (approx 15% total weight); proteins; fatty acids (linoleic, oleic, palmitic, stearic); sterols; tannins.
Actions Demulcent, bulk-forming laxative.
If requiring a bulk laxative, there are typically just two main herbal choices that stand out; psyllium or the endangered slippery elm. In both cases the resultant effects are due to the high concentration of mucilaginous, polysaccharide substances.
Herbal pharmacologists advise the soaking of plantain husk in warm water for several hours before using. This is probably due to the nature of long chain mucilage sugar units requiring time for them to be fully ‘loosened’ from the action of water.
Some studies have shown that fecal matter can be substantially increased by psyllium. For people with constipation, increases in the frequency of defacation will (hopefully) occur. Psyllium is indicated by herbalists for use following anorectal surgery and for the management of haemorrhoids and in cases of diarrhoea.
As a bulk laxative there is a chance it will cause minor flatulence and temporary abdominal pains. Do not attempt to swallow psyllium husk dry, for the drug may cause an obstruction in the throat!
If you are wanting to come and learn the arts and crafts of the forager, then my upcoming foraging walks may be happening near you soon