A friend once told me that “everyone who works with plants has a miraculous story about plantain.” I have found this to be very true. I often tell the story of the little girl who burned her foot in the sweat lodge and was able to completely heal her massive, painful blisters in less than an hour. I could tell a thousand more stories about this incredible plant that grows all around us.
Let’s be clear: when I talk about plantain, I am referring to the common lawn weed of the Plantago genus…not the green banana thing that gets fried up in Mexico and Central America.
There are three species of plantain that I use most…Plantago rugelii (the native broadleaf plantain), Plantago major (very similar botanically and chemically to P. rugelii, but not native to North America), and Plantago lanceolata (the narrowleaf variety, which is also not native to North America).
Plantain leaves of all three species have a mild flavor and are delicious (if not a tiny but stringy) in everything from salad and soup to casseroles, lasagna, and spring rolls. I often eat them over steamed rice after washing, blanching, squeezing out the excess water, and tossing the leaves with a dressing of soy sauce, sesame oil, minced garlic and red pepper flakes. You can even fry or bake the leaves as “chips!” Plantain seeds are an excellent addition to breads (we use them in frybread!) and oatmeal.
Plantain is probably best known as a medicine. The leaves are miraculous as a poultice or balm for burns, spider bites, and dry skin. They are also excellent in a salve for eczema and psoriasis. Using narrowleaf plantain (P. lanceolata) is standard in cough syrups all over Europe. There’s no other plant that is as effective in treating a dry cough and it is also antibacterial. The seeds of all plantain species are used to make psyllium powder…the very same stuff used in Metamucil and other fiber drinks. As I said above, we grind them and use them in breads and hot cereals.
Be grateful for this plant relative.
By Linda Black Elk
Linda Black Elk Linda (Catawba Nation) is an ethnobotanist specializing in teaching about culturally important plants and their uses as food and medicine. Linda works to protect food sovereignty, traditional plant knowledge, and environmental quality as an extension of the fight against hydraulic fracturing and the fossil fuels industry. She has written for numerous publications, and is the author of “Watoto Unyutapi”, a field guide to edible wild plants of the Dakota people.