As most of you probably know by now, we crossed the threshold of two years in business this past week. And since the very beginning, we’ve done #WildEdibleWednesday. Educating our tribe on the richness of the resources that surround them is a part of who we are as a company. Since the beginning, we’ve featured over 70 unique plants, and there’ll certainly be more to come. But in honor of two years of wild edibles, we’re throwing it back to the very beginning. Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Plantago major, or Broadleaf Plantain. It’s the first plant we ever featured, and with good reason. I was thinking back, and this was the very first wild edible I learned to identify as a nerdy kid running around with field guides. There’s no better universal edible and medicinal plant, and there’s not much it can’t do. If you’ve ever taken one of our courses at SARCRAFT, there’s a 100% chance we’ve at least mentioned Plantain, if not shown you how to use it. We’ve always said that if you’re going to learn one edible and medicinal plant, it should be plantain. We should also mention that there’s another Plantain species worth knowing – Narrowleaf Plantain, or Plantago lanceolata. While its first cousin broadleaf plantain is slightly more effective medicinally and superior if you can find it, Narrowleaf Plantain is still an incredibly useful and powerful medicinal plant. The uses are the same, and we covered it on the SARCRAFT Blog last year. We should also clarify that these plantains have nothing to do with the starchy Latin American staple food that’s kin to bananas (genus Musa). Those are delicious, but they definitely won’t grow in Appalachia.
Broadleaf plantain is native to Northern Europe, particularly the British Isles. However, it has become widely naturalized in temperate and subtropical regions throughout the world, and is considered a pernicious weed in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and much of Asia. It is common in any open, sunny area – from woodland clearings, to pastures and fields, to abandoned homestead sites, to roadsides, suburban yards, and cracks in city sidewalks. Chances are, you’ve got enough in your yard to make a salad for your whole family. It is a rosette-forming perennial herb, with wide, ribbed, egg-shaped ovate leaves that are anywhere from 2”-10” inches long. It flowers through spring, summer, and fall, displaying 6”-12” tall stalks topped with tiny white flowers. It is a prime honey plant – bees of all species absolutely love it. It has no deadly mimics anywhere it grows, all parts of the plant are safe to eat, and it is edible throughout every phase of its life cycle.
Plantain is very edible, but where it really shines is as a medicinal plant. It has antiseptic, coagulant, expectorant, anti-inflammatory, and nephrotic properties, and its entire range of medicinal uses are too many to list here. It has a near-miraculous ability to stop bleeding, and heal small cuts, scrapes, burns, and stings. We generally keep a bowl of water full of plantain leaves on hand during our classes – if you nick yourself with a knife or burn yourself starting a fire, just go over to the bowl and wash your hands. Chances are it’ll take care of your problem. To get the most out of plantain’s antiseptic and coagulant properties, make a spit poultice: Simply take a few leaves, chew them into a pulp in your mouth, spit the wad of chewed leaves out, and slap it on your wound. At this point you can either hold it in place for ten minutes or so, or wrap a bandage around it so you can go about your business. We taught one class where a kid didn’t believe me when I said this, so to prove my point, I pulled my knife, sliced the palm of my hand open, and put a hasty plantain poultice on it. The bleeding completely quit within thirty seconds. A tea made from plantain leaves is a powerful treatment for any respiratory issue, be it a chest cold, bronchitis, asthma, or pneumonia. It works as a bronchodilator to ease breathing, helps reduce irritation to relieve coughing, and works as an expectorant to clear out mucus. It’s also one of my favorites when it comes to flavor. It has a mild, inoffensive flavor that really pairs nicely with some local honey. Eating the seeds is also shown to reduce bad cholesterol levels and help keep you regular… the husks of the seeds work as a gentle laxative.
Although not necessarily a medicinal purpose, plantain’s antiseptic properties make it a great plant for cleaning while in the woods. Washing your hands in plantain water and scrubbing your knife blade and cutting board with a crushed plantain leaf before cooking will sanitize those surfaces and kill bacteria that can make you sick. If you’ve left your pot scrubber at home, a plantain leaf will work just fine in a pinch. The large ribs of the mature leaves do a great job of removing food residue from your dishes, and the natural antiseptic will prevent future bacterial growth. During my time on the Appalachian Trail, I would fill my pockets with plantain leaves during my last few miles before I got to camp, use the small tender ones to supplement my meal, and then use the bigger ones to clean my pot with.
While we use it primarily for its medicinal properties, plantain is also a great edible. Leaves can get tough and fibrous when they mature, so harvest them young. They are high in vitamin C, as well as a whole host of trace minerals. They make a great supplemental food source in a survival situation, as well as a pretty good salad green at home. They can be used in place of spinach in stir fry, soups, or cooked as a green. One benefit of plantain is that it’s one of the hardiest plants in the Eastern Woodlands – it’s usually the last herb to be killed off by frost, and the first to sprout in the spring, making it a reliable plant food source throughout most of the year.
One of the many reasons we teach plantain so heavily is that it’s applicable to just about any of our students, regardless of where they live… unless you live in a desert or on a ship on the ocean, there’s probably plantain somewhere nearby. Why is this? How did a plant with a historically small range in northern Europe spread across the world? In a word, adaptability. While many plant species have suffered as a result of the spread of humans across the planet, some have benefitted immensely. Plantain is in the latter category. In fact, plantain really owes its success, and arguably its existence, to the spread of humans. Paleobotanists have concluded that before pastoral agriculture took hold in Europe, plantain was actually extremely rare – nearly extinct, in fact. As we’ve discussed, it likes open ground and lots of sun. The dense forests present in ancient Europe left it few places to grow. This rarity has allowed these scientists to use preserved or fossilized plantain pollen as a marker to chronicle the spread of agriculture across Europe in the Neolithic era. Wherever humans plowed fields or cleared pastures, plantain quickly followed. This continued into the New World – wherever pioneers settled, there was plantain, which led to its name among most Native American tribes: White Man’s Foot. When European settlers moved into an area, plantain almost moved faster than they did. Native Americans quickly learned to love it, and it became a fixture in most tribal medicinal traditions within a few decades after its arrival.
Have you ever used plantain in the field? If so, what’s your favorite way to use it? Tell us in the comments!