No relation to the tropical, banana-like plant with the same name, plantain is a common weed with edible leaves and seeds. It is also one of the best herbal remedies for scrapes, bug bites, and bee stings. And foraging for this edible wild plant is usually as easy as looking in your backyard.
Where to find plantain
If you have a sunny driveway, you probably have some plantain growing along it. Plantago (plantain’s scientific name) loves sunny places with disturbed soils and is common in lawns, parks, and gardens.
All of the plantains have in common that their leaves grow in a low rosette, and that the leaves have prominent, stretchy, parallel veins. If you pull off one of the leaves from the plant you’ll often see those veins sticking out of the stalk like threads (think celery). The leaves have smooth edges or a few soft teeth.
Plantago major (common plantain) has wide, oval leaves. P. rugelii (Rugel’s plantain) leaves are the same shape as common plantain’s, but with red or purplish coloration on the leaf stalks. P. lanceolata (narrow-leaved or English plantain) has narrow leaves that can grow anywhere from a few inches to a foot long, but are almost never more than an inch wide.
All three species have flowers and seed heads that emerge from the center of the leaf rosette on leafless stalks. Plantago lanceolata has 1- to 2-inch seed heads with tiny white flowers. The seed heads of both P. major and P. rugelii. cover most of their stalks and start out with green, scale-like seeds that eventually turn black or brown.
Plantain is an invasive plant and you do not have to worry about over-harvesting it. Gather the leaves spring through fall.
Harvest the seeds after they’ve turned brown or black. I don’t bother trying to winnow the chaff from the tiny seeds – just think of it as extra fiber.
What to do with plantain
Use the smaller leaves raw in salads. Use the larger leaves to make chips. You can substitute plantain leaves for kale in any kale chip recipe: those stringy veins actually become an asset, adding extra crunch to the chips once they’re dried.
Add the seeds to crackers, breads, muffins, etc.
Plantain leaves are anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving. They are an herbal remedy that works wonders on mosquito bites, bee stings, and minor cuts and scrapes.
The simplest way to use them is to crush up a leaf and rub it on the bite or scrape. You can also turn the leaves into an herbal ointment. But by far the most effective way to use plantain (if you aren’t grossed out by it) is to make a spit poultice. Chew one of the leaves for a moment and then apply the wad of chewed up leaf.
Plantago Chips Recipe
I didn’t call these “plantain chips” because that would be too reminiscent of the banana-like fried plantain that has nothing to do with this recipe. Here the otherwise stringy veins of Plantago species are transformed into extra crunch in a tasty snack.
These chips are all about texture, I have to admit: the leaves themselves are somewhat bland. But they are a perfectly crisp vehicle for whatever seasoning you put on them.
Amounts here are flexible – you can change the number of leaves, amount of salt, etc.
24 large leaves of any Plantago (plantain) species
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon seasoning (try garlic powder, nutritional yeast, half the quantity of cayenne, za’atar, or any of your favorite spice blends)
Preheat the oven to 250F.
Wash the plantain leaves and dry them well in a salad spinner or by rolling them up in a clean dishtowel.
In a large bowl, toss the leaves with the oil until they are each well coated. Spread the leaves in a single later on baking sheets. Depending on the size of the leaves you gathered, you may need more than one baking sheet.
Sprinkle the leaves with the salt and seasoning. Bake until crisp but not burnt, which may take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes depending on the size of the leaves. Remember that they will continue to crisp up a bit as they cool, just like cookies do after you take them out of the oven. If you aren’t sure if they’re done, err on the side of underdone. Take them out, let them cool for just a minute, and if they’re not crunchy enough put them back in the oven.
Once they are completely cooled, you can store your Plantago chips in an airtight container for several weeks. If the container is not airtight the chips may absorb some humidity from the air and lose their crispness. Not a problem: simply put them back into a 250F oven for 3 – 5 minutes.
Note: I wrote an earlier version of this post for Mother Earth News
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