May 31, 2012

Eat Your Weeds: Plantain

It comes up through the cracks in the sidewalk. You'll find it in otherwise barren lots. It abounds in wilderness areas and plagues gardeners everywhere. Thankfully (like the much-maligned dandelion), it's also useful. "It" is plantain, a plant most people consider a difficult-to-get-rid of weed, but which has provided food and medicine in North America since pre-colonial times.

There are two basic types of plantain: the broad leaf Plantago major and the narrow (or lance) leaf Plantago lanceolata. Broad leaf plantain has (you guessed it!) broad, oval-ish, ribbed leaves about 4 to 8 inches long and 3 to 4 inches wide. It's "flower," which looks like a straight shoot, quickly turns into a cluster of seeds. You can see pictures of broad leaf plantain over at Wikipedia.

Narrow leaf plantain has long, sharp-pointed, ribbed leaves that are no more than an inch or so wide. It also has a flower shoot that features many seeds. This is the type of plantain in my yard, and the type pictured throughout this post. (You can see more photographs here.)

Most gardeners try to eradicated this tenacious weed from their gardens. Here are two reason why you might want to keep a few in yours - or why you might want to seek out this weed in a wilderness area:

1. All parts of plantain are edible. Plantain is very high in beta carotene (A), B1, riboflavin, calcium, and fiber. The plant is also a good source of vitamin C and fiber. The young leaves, found in early to mid-spring, can be eaten like lettuce or greens. Toss them into a salad or put them in your sandwich. Or throw them into a pot of soup or stew. Or saute them like I do my collard greens. My children (ages 6 and 3) love eating the leaves raw, freshly picked and washed. Many people find the older leaves (those found in late spring, summer, or fall) too fibrous too eat raw, but they may still be cooked. I've read that plantain leaves are supposed to be slightly nutty in flavor; this is not the case with the plantain in my yard. It just tastes like a mild green.

Plantain flowers and seeds are also edible; many people toss them into salads.  I've read they are supposed to have a peanut like flavor, but I think they taste like rotting peanuts; again, maybe this has to do with the variety growing in our area.

The roots are also used in teas, and the stems may be eaten, also.

2. Plantain is medicinal. The most common use for plantain is insect bites, stings, cuts, scrapes, hemorrhoids, rashes, or sores. Traditionally, people lightly chewed up the leaves a bit in their mouth, then applied the leaf to the affected area. But because our mouths are full of germs, I instead recommend bruising or crushing the leaves in a mortar and pestle or with your hands. You can also use the dried leaves (or the leaves, roots, and flowers) for making a tea or mouthwash that's excellent for healing all manner of mouth sores. A few days ago, my daughter had a very painful sore in her mouth. I made a plantain mouthwash for her and the pain almost immediately disappeared. The following day, after another rinse, her sore was gone.

Drinking plantain tea is also a proven expectorant and decongestant, which makes it great for things like bronchitis, colds, and the flu. Plantain may also help control blood sugar, "bad" cholesterol, and asthma. One of plantain's common names, Snakebite Weed, tells of another traditional medicinal use: on snake bites. This may make sense because plantain is a known anti-bacterial and antiseptic. But please, if you're bitten by a snake, seek professional medical help.


Harvesting and Preparing Plantain

Plantain may be harvested at any time of year, although for eating purposes, some people won't collect the leaves after the late spring (when they become more fibrous). As with all wild edibles, avoid harvesting in areas where chemicals (including herbicides and vehicle fumes) may make the plant toxic. Wash the plant under cool, running water at least two or three times, then pat dry. The plant may now be eaten raw, or it can be cooked.

Dry plantain leaves in a dehydrator at 95 degrees F. until no trace of moisture exists. If you don't have a dehydrator, place the leaves on a wire cooling rack placed over a baking tray and put them in your oven's warming drawer at 95 degrees F. or the lowest available temperature setting. If your oven doesn't have a warming drawer, place the leaves (on a wire rack atop a baking tray) in your oven at it's lowest setting. Roots may be dehydrated at 135 degrees F.

To make plantain leaf tea, crumble the leaves into one half of a tea ball, filling the half to about capacity. Close the tea ball and steep for 10 to 15 minutes. As with all medicinal teas, it's best to cover the cup with a saucer while steeping. To make a tea with leaves plus the roots and/or flowers, fill the opposite side of the tea ball with crumbled or ground flowers and ground roots. (Grind the roots in a coffee grinder.)

To use the tea as a mouthwash, allow the tea to cool to lukewarm before using.

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4 comments:

  1. I had almost decided the wild plant in our garden was plantain. Looking at your photos brings me doubt. Then again, we pull the weed while it is still young so that could be what it would grow into if we let them mature... Hmm...

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  2. There are many varieties of plantain, so it still could be what you thought. All have a spike coming up with seeds on the end.

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  3. Thank you for your information on drying it. We have tons of it in our yard but only a short growing season. Is like to store some for winter use.

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  4. I found this information interesting as my partner suffers from asthma and chesty inflammation, I remember this plant from my childhood growing everywhere.

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