In Chippewa, o’mukiki’bug, common plantain is often an initial edible and medicinal herb for beginner foragers and herbalists. It may seem mundane, but it’s powerful, and has been called the “Mother of Herbs”.
It has been called “soldier’s herb” hinting at its medicinal properties. I’m particularly found of the nickname “waybread”, which calls to mind Middle Earth. The “ribwort/ribgrass” nicknames are due to the stems and leaves being ribbed. We have a few types of plantain around Haliburton: English or narrow-leaved plantain (plantago lanceolata) and the rare pale plantain (plantago rugelii). A couple other plants are called plantain (rattlesnake, water) but are not in the same family.
Edible Uses of Common Plantain
The swiss chard-like earthy young leaves can be eaten as salad or cooked greens. Cook the tough older leaves, tossing the stringy ribs first. You don’t need to use much water, and can drink the resulting tea after to get all the nutritional value.
Tom Brown recommends parching the seeds, drying, and grinding them to add to salads or bread. Roasting is optional. But even more intriguing, he mixes the partially dried crushed seeds with butter as a peanut butter substitute. I feel a wild nut and seed butter recipe coming!
High in vitamins A, C and K.
Medicinal Uses of Common Plantain
Common plantain is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Antibacterial, Antiseptic, Astringent, Demulcent, Diuretic, Expectorant, and Anti-inflammatory. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
Common usage includes as a leaf poultice to soothe cuts, blisters, burns, and bites. This can be warmed to help with swelling and soreness. Rosemary Gladstar calls plantain “poultice herb supreme”.
It’s a common ingredient in healing skin balms. If you’ve yet to make a skin ointment, here’s a simple one: 1 c chopped plantain leaves covered with glycerin. Place in dark bottle, shake well. Let stand for 2 weeks. Then store in fridge for up to several months.
When the seeds are soaked in water they produce a mucilage substance that has been used in lotions for instance. The same is used to treat some coughs, and for laxative, upset stomach and diarrhea. There’s a cultivated variety “p. psylliuim” used for the seeds commercially.
Alternative Uses of Ribgrass
Strong veins from mature leaves can be used as thread or fishing line.
Growing White Man’s Footprint
Till the soil and it will come. Its ability to grow where the soil is disturbed is why the nickname “white man’s footprint”. If you want to plant it on purpose, there is a native plantain, American plantain (plantago rugelii), sadly rare here while the introduced ones are widespread. I think it deserves its own feature here at some point. Ribwort will also be covered.
Plantain may cause allergic reactions.
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.
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The Path to Wild Food
Field Guide to North American Edible Wild PlantsThe Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual