This so-called weed is the epitome of resilience. You’ll see them poking between the cracks of sidewalks, along fences, and pretty much anywhere where humans have disturbed the land. We’re talking about the broadleaf plantain (Plantago major), also known as greater plantain. Not to be confused with plantain fruit (similar to a banana), these two plants are quite different from one another.
While many people view this plant as a nuisance or weed, it’s time to shed some light on the many broadleaf plantain uses including its nutritional and healing properties. Rich in vitamins A, C, and E, plantain is a nutritious edible wild food that can be harvested for its leaves, seeds, and roots. It’s also used for many medicinal purposes including healing skin irritations and minor wounds.
What does a broadleaf plantain look like?
As the name implies, the broadleaf plantain has wide, thick, spade-shaped leaves. Plantain leaves have five to nine veins running lengthwise. You’ll be able to identify them easily by its clustered small, green-brown flowers with a purplish stamen.
On average, the broadleaf plantain is 15–30 cm (6–12 inches) in diameter. In some cases, the flower stalks can reach heights of 25 cm (9.84 inches).
This perennial plant pops up in the same places year after year. It’s frequently found along sidewalks, roads, and lawns. It thrives in environments where humans have caused a “disturbance.”
History of broadleaf plantain
The broadleaf plantain has a long roots reaching back to Europe from pre-Columbus times (essentially any time period before 1492). Many Indigenous people refer to the broadleaf plantain as “the white man’s footprint” as it seemed to appear wherever European settlements sprang up.
Healing properties of broadleaf plantain
The medicinal properties of plantain have long been known. Broadleaf plantain is used fresh, dried, or in powdered form, depending on the purpose.
References of plantain use for healing even appear in popular works of art such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In Act 1, Scene 2 Romeo references the plantain leaf:
While Romeo might have been a bit confused (plantain leaves clearly can’t heal broken bones!), it speaks to the practice of using the healing properties of this well-known plant.
The broadleaf plantain has many medicinal properties. It’s antibacterial, acts as an astringent (tones and tightens), and acts as a diuretic (the seeds have laxative properties). It also helps to stop bleeding, reduce fever, soothes skin ailments, and helps neutralize poisoning.
Here’s just a few ways you can use broadleaf plantain to heal and nourish:
- Make poultices of plantain leaves to treat insect bites, small cuts, minor burns, and other minor skin irritations. You can chew up plantain leaves into a mash and apply to wound. If you don’t have a bandage with you, try wrapping another plantain leaf around the poultice to secure it in place. This is handy when you’re out enjoying nature and don’t have access to other medicines.
- Use fresh leaves or powdered plantain as a natural way to treat minor snake bites, and encounters with poison ivy.
- Plantain leaves act as nature’s cleanser to protect the body from infectious diseases from contamination or unsanitary situations.1
- Place fresh or dried leaves in hot water for a foot soak after a long day.
- Make a plantain tea for washing and toning your face. The plantain tea when mixed with some ground-up root can be used as a mouthwash.
- Use Plantain seeds as a laxative (another option if you don’t like the taste of prune juice!).
How to use broadleaf plantain in the kitchen
The whole broadleaf plantain is edible from seed, to leaf to roots, except for the stem. The stem is too fibrous and tough for most people to eat.
The larger leaves have a full-bodied, robust and slightly bitter flavor with a fibrous texture. It may be a bit of an acquired taste. Young, small leaves are more palatable and tender with a taste similar to asparagus.
Dice up plantain leaves and add to salads, stir frys, or blend into green smoothies or shakes. You can also throw in a handful of leaves in your vegetable stock.
You can try eating plantain seeds on their own, sprinkled over salads, added to recipes such as porridge, soup or bread, and ground finely into powder. Brown seeds when soaked turn gelatinous (similar to chia seeds) and are used to thicken foods.
Plantain seeds can be green or brown, depending on the age of the plant (newer plants have green seeds, older ones have brown seeds). To eat the plantain seeds alone, place a shoot between your teeth and pull to extract the seeds.
While the roots are not very big, try adding them to soups and vegetable dishes.
Nutritional content of broadleaf plantain
If more people knew the nutritional benefits of broadleaf plantain, they would be growing gardens full of them rather than treating them like an invasive weed. You’ll want to find more broadleaf plantain uses in the kitchen to stock up on your daily dose of vitamins.
Broadleaf plantain has a similar nutritional profile to dandelion. It’s chock-full of iron. The leaves contain vitamins A, C, E along with magnesium and calcium. This helps with building/ maintaining/repairing bones, teeth, organs, and muscles.
Plantain is also a rich source of potassium—good for the heart and organs.
Broadleaf plantain recipes
The following recipes are from the book The Wild Wisdom of Weeds: 13 Essential Plants for Human Survival by Katrina Blair. It’s a great book if you want to learn more about the edible and medicinal weeds growing in your own backyard.
Plantain Breakfast Porridge
- 2 cups water
- ½ cup finely ground plantain seeds
- 1 cup oats
- ½ cup raisins, soaked
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 banana
Bring water to boil. Turn off heat. Add the plantain seeds and oats to the water and stir periodically. Add in raisins and cinnamon. Before serving, slice in the banana and feast on the marvelous healing properties of the wild plantain.
- 1 cup plantain leaves
- 3 cups water
- 1 apple (optional) – since plantain leaves are slightly bitter, the apple adds some much needed sweetness as a nice counterbalance if you’ll be drinking this.
Blend together and strain out the pulp. Use the juice as fresh as possible. Use this juice can as a healing wash or as a nutritious daily juice.
Plantain Raisin Pecan Salad
- 1 head of cauliflower, diced
- ½ cup of chives, diced
- 2 cups plantain leaves, diced
- 1 cup pecans
- ½ cup raisins, soaked
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 cup raisin soak water
- 2 tbsp honey
- ½ avocado
Dice the cauliflower, chives, and plantain together and place in a bowl. Add the pecans and raisins. Blend all the ingredients of the dressing together and drizzle over the salad. Enjoy!
Foraging safety tips
As with any wild foraged plant, be mindful of the environment the plant is growing in. Particularly with broadleaf plantains that love to sprout up in the middle of the city, use your intuition and commonsense to see if it’s a good place to harvest the plant.
Many areas in the city use herbicides and pesticides to keep weeds at bay. You’ll be able to spot sprayed weeds by their wilted appearance. Others might have discolored spots.
Don’t confuse plantains with members of the Lily family which can be poisonous. Their leaves look similar. If unsure, wait until flowers sprout to tell them apart.