Plantain - A Miraculous Herb & Nutritious Food

by Christopher Nyerges

Nyerges is the author of "Enter the Forest," "Urban Wilderness," "Guide to Wild Foods," and other books. He is the former editor of Lament, the magazine of Greater L.A. Area Mensa. He has been teaching outdoor classes since 1974. Together with his wife Dolores, they operate the School of Self-Reliance. For information on his classes and books, contact School of Self-Reliance at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041 or

Plantain is a valuable food and medicine, generally ignored and under-rated. Patricia Earl of Laurel Canyon, California, reports that her family has long used the plantain leaves for healing wounds. Her great grandmother, Wilhelmina, who was from Germany, moved into the Minnesota area and learned about plantain from the local Indians in the years just after the Civil War. Since then, the family has used plantain leaves numerous times with "miraculous" results. For example, an Uncle Jake had a circulatory problem which resulted in skin sores. To heal the sores, he placed crushed plantain leaves directly on the wounds, and they always healed. In another instance, Patricia's son Michael accidentally jumped onto a board with a 16 penny nail sticking straight up. He was about 9 or 10 years old at the time, and the nail went through his tennis shoe and all the way through his foot. Patricia's mother, who lived about 20 minutes away, immediately brought fresh plantain leaves over and applied them to the top and bottom of Michael's foot. They did not go to a hospital, though Michael's foot was beginning to swell and he had some pain. Six hours later there was no swelling and no pain. Patricia reports that they used primarily the broadleaf plantain.

Early American colonists used it on insect bites (including mosquitoes), and on the bites of venomous reptiles, and used the seeds for expelling worms. I have taken the fresh leaves, chewed them a bit, and then applied them directly to insect bites. In most cases there was a somewhat immediate noticeable relief.

Cooked plantain leaves have been used as a direct poultice on boils. Plantain and poppy heads can be mixed together and applied on wounds to kill pain. Plantain is a vulnerary (promotes healing), and is noted for its styptic, antiseptic, and astringent qualities.

Both the seeds and the leaves of plantain are edible.

The seeds can also be eaten once cleaned by winnowing. The seeds can be ground into flour and used as you would regular flour. They can also be soaked in water until soft, and cooked like rice. Once cooked, the seeds are slightly mucilaginous, and bland. They can be eaten plain, or flavored with honey, butter, or other seasoning. The seeds are eaten by birds and other small mammals in the wild. 100 grams of the seed contain 339 mg. of potassium and 305 mg. of phosphorus [Duke and Atchley].

The seeds of all varieties are used as a laxative and a source of dietary fibre. The husks of the seeds of a related plant, Plantago ovata, commonly called psyllium, are sold in some markets. They are supposed to cleanse the colon, although the labels of the psyllium husks rarely say this. One is advised to stir 1-2 tablespoons of the psyllium husks into a glass of water or fruit juice, and drink in the morning. Readers who consume psyllium husks may wish to experiment with the husks of the common wild plantain seeds.

Plantain is a European native which was apparently brought to North America as a food crop. It will grow the best in rich soil. It survives well in poor soil, but the plant stays considerably smaller. Today, plantain is found all over the world and throughout the United States in agricultural lands, along streams (P. major, especially), along walkways, in gardens, lawns, and waste places. While it prefers disturbed soils, it is not confined there.

Broadleaf plantain was called White Man's Foot by many North American Indians, since some say it followed the white man's footsteps, and always grew in the new settlements; others say that the leaf actually resembles a foot (if that's the case, it would have to had been someone with some serious foot problems). Broadleaf plantain is said to have grown around all of the earliest frontier settlements in Northern America, almost certainly brought here intentionally. It is as common a city weed as dandelion, though very few people seem to know what it is when they see it on their lawns. If left alone, the entire plant can grow to about one foot across, with the seed stalks rising from 1 to two feet tall. Typically, the plants "hide" in lawns, much like dandelion, and are most often noticed when their late summer seed spikes rise up out of the lawn like mini-cattails. These plantain seed spikes are typically just about three to five inches long, on stalks that may be over a foot long.

The tough fibres of the leaves make them difficult to digest. So the young tender leaves of spring are the only ones suitable to use in salads. I generally do not add the older leaves to salad, but cook it as I'd cook spinach. The leaves that have become more fibrous with age need longer cooking, and these are best chopped fine or pureed, and cooked in a cream sauce. Go slow at first, since the leaves have a mild laxative effect. Nutritionally, 100 grams of the leaf (about cup) contains 184 mg. of calcium, 52 mg. of phosphorus, 277 mg. of potassium, and 2,520 micrograms of beta carotene (according to Duke and Atchley).

According to herbalist Michael Moore, "Proteolytic enzymes found in the fresh leaf and the fresh or dried root make plantain useful as a gentle internal vasoconstrictor for mild intestinal inflammation, from stomach ache to dysentery and inflamed hemorrhoids."

If you observe the wild plants, you'll see that you most likely have plantain growing in or near your yard. There are two common varieties of plantain -- the broadleaf, and the narrowleaf. Both are used the same way.

The plant's leaves all radiate from the base in rosette fashion, with the basal leaves reaching from six inches to a foot. Narrowleaf plantain's (Plantago lanceolata) leaves are prominently ribbed with parallel veins, which converge at their bases into a broad petiole about two inches long. Broadleaf plantain (P. major) has large glabrous leaves, up to six inches long, roundish or ovate shaped. The narrowleaf plantain has erect lanceolate leaves covered with soft short hairs; they reach up to a foot long, and taper at the base into a slender petiole.

For a plant that is so widely despised by gardeners and farmers, plantain is remarkably under-rated. It is a nutritious food and a valuable healing herb. Without a doubt, it is far more valuable in your front yard than any of that useless lawn.


Back Yard Wood Stump Soup

3 cups young, non-fibrous plantain leaves, diced
4 cups water or milk (your choice)
2 eggs
 cup potato flour
1 turnip
1 Jerusalem artichoke or small potato

Add all the ingredients (except the eggs and flour) to the liquid and let it simmer. Slowly stir in the flour so there are no lumps. Separate the egg white from yolk, and beat separately. Slowly add the yolks to the soup, while stirring. Next, slowly add the whites to the soup, while stirring. Simmer until the roots are soft, and season with garlic powder or pepper.

Sorry! There are no wood stumps that go into the soup. The wood stump is where you sit when you enjoy the soup. Serves 3.

Grape leaf plantain

1 quart of large plantain leaves
2 cups of brown rice
2 red onions
1 egg

Boil the plantain leaves until they are tender. In some cases, you may need to pull out the strands of fibre. These leaves will be used as grape leaves are used in dolmas or sarmas, Middle Eastern foods rolled in grape leaves, and commonly called "grape leaves."

Cook the rice. When nearly done, add the two red onions, diced. Cook til the rice is tender. Add spices that you prefer. Blend in the egg. Place approx. one tablespoon full of the rice mix onto each leaf, and roll the leaf around the rice. Sometimes you need to use a toothpick to hold it together. Make as many as you can with the available rice and leaves.

Place the rolled plantain leaves into a baking dish, cover, and bake for about 20 to 30 minutes at 250 degrees f. Serves 3.

Copyright © 2001 by Christopher Nyerges.
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