Plantago is also known as plantain, plantain leaf, or plantain weed.
I’m not talking about the banana-like fruit, fried Cuban-style.
I’m talking about the edible weed that grows wild in your yard and garden and vacant lots throughout North America.
There are over 200 species of plantain within the genus Plantago, and, as far as I know, all are edible.
There’s a lot of talk about Plantago’s Old World roots and how early European settlers introduced it to Native Americans.
In fact, another common name for Plantago major is “White man’s foot,” supposedly given by Native Americans as they noticed the plant growing wherever Europeans traveled.
Theory holds that plantain seeds hitch-hiked to the New World by way of mud-caked boots and horse hooves.
Surely there’s some truth to that, but there are at least 35 species of Plantago in North America and several of those are native.
A few North American natives that tend to get overlooked are Plantago virginica (Virginia plantain or Dwarf plantain), Plantago rhodosperma (Redseed plantain), and Plantago rugelii (Rugel’s plantain).
Still, you’re probably more likely to encounter the European varieties since they’ve taken such a hold on American soil.
Plantago lanceolata (Narrowleaf plantain or English plantain) and Plantago major (Common plantain) are a couple of the more well-known European species that have naturalized in North America.
Plantain leaves are easy to recognize by the five or so palmate veins that run parallel to the midrib.
They grow from a basal rosette and can be up to a foot long if they don’t get mowed.
The leaves of P. major, P. rugelii are wider, but P. major leaf stems are green at the base, while P. rugelii leaf stems are reddish-purple at the base.
True to its name, the leaves of P. lanceolata (Narrowleaf plantain) are more slender than those of P. major.
The native P. virginica also has narrow leaves, but its leaves are distinctly pointed and hairy, which distinguishes it from its European counterpart, P. lanceolata.
The tiny flowers of plantain grow in clusters along a stem, or spike, that grows from the center of the basal rosette.
A single plant will usually have several flower stems growing at the same time.
Flower spikes can grow up to ten inches.
After the flowers finish blooming and fall away, they leave behind fibrous seeds.
Plantain likes full sun and thrives in compacted soil.
It’s also really hardy and tolerant of repeated mowing and trampling, which is why it’s commonly found in yards, fields, abandoned lots, and other disturbed areas throughout North America.
Depending on region, plantain emerges in winter or early spring and grows through summer into fall until colder weather beats it back.
In addition to being edible, Plantago has a long history of use in folk medicine.
Used as a “spit poultice” (chewed thouroughly), it has served as a folk remedy for snake bites, insect bites, cuts and rashes for ages.
It’s also a common component in healing salve.
One species, Plantago ovata, may not be well-known by its Latin name, but its seed husks are well-known as psyllium, the main ingredient of over-the-counter laxative products like Metamucil.
To harvest, simply cut leaves and seed heads.
Cooking & Eating
In early spring, gather young plantain leaves while they’re still tender enough to eat raw in salads.
As the leaves get older and bigger, they get stringy and tough.
Steaming tougher leaves will make them tender, but the fibrous veins and midribs will need to be removed from older, stringier leaves.
Gather young seed heads throughout summer and use them in stir frys.
Older seed heads are too tough to eat.
Plaintain leaf tea
Plantain leaves and seed heads may be dried for tea or used fresh.
To make tea with fresh leaves, shred leaves and pour boiling water over them.
Plantain tea can also be frozen for later use.
Thanks so much for the great information! I have been identifying edible wild greens in our yards. Today was plantain. The only comment is that when I ate the young seed heads raw they started to expand a bit I'm my mouth and kind of attaching itself to the roof of my mouth. No worries of course I just spit the rest out until I felt comfortable. That's probably why they recommend cooking first...lol