Plantain (Plantago spp.) is a common weedy plant found growing throughout the world, in urban and rural areas alike. Plantain is also edible and has a long history of use as a medicinal plant — including treating bee and wasp stings.
A few minutes later, I heard Susan’s panicked voice and saw her running towards me on the garden path. “Help, there’s a honeybee trying to sting me!” (Much scarier when a bee can sting your baby, too.)
It was a cooler morning, so Susan was wearing a long black sweater. To a worker honeybee, this type of attire looks far too similar to a bear and triggers a defensive reaction. “Sting the bear before it gets our hive,” is what was going through the worker bee’s mind.
Next thing I knew, Susan yelped. The bee stung her through her pants on the top of her leg.
We both knew exactly what to do next in order to treat the oncoming pain and inflammatory response: get to the nearest plantain plant in our yard. (And remember not to wear dark-colored clothes near our beehive.)
I quickly chewed a plantain leaf to release the sap in the leaf, then stuck a swab of it on top of Susan’s sting (after checking for a stinger). Susan held the masticated poultice in place while I went to get a bandaid to hold it on more permanently. By the time I’d gotten back outside, the pain had mostly subsided.
Despite being surrounded by them daily, we seldom get stung by bees and wasps. They could care less about humans unless they feel threatened. But when those painful occasions come, plantain weed is a near-instant treatment that we’ve both found to be very effective over the years.
If you ever get stung by a bee, wasp, fire ant, or other insect, it’s nice to have a patch of plantain growing in your yard or garden. Since this “weed” is so common, chances are you’re already accidentally growing it. It’s also a good idea to know how to ID plantain in case you get stung on a hike or other outdoor adventure.
Oh, and plantain is also edible, so all the more reason to consider intentionally growing some…
How to grow or forage plantain weed
Common plantain species
We should start by noting that there are 200+ species of plantain (plants in the Plantago genus). Various species of plantain can be found occupying pretty much every temperate climate ecosystem on earth. For instance, there is even a plantain species adapted to salty seaside soils (Plantago maritima).
So, use regional foraging books to find the species of plantain growing in your bioregion.
The two most common plantain species we see in our area are broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) and narrowleaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata). As their names imply, the leaf shape is the easiest way to differentiate between these two plants, although their seed spikes are quite different as well.
Both of these species are also fairly common throughout the US (brought over by immigrants), although they’re native to Eurasia.
Broadleaf and narrowleaf plantain are typically found in untreated (read un-poisoned) lawns, along roadways, trails, and other disturbed habitats. In our opinion, these two species of plantain are ok edibles, but not great (notable exception below).
Their leaf flavor — especially as the weather warms — is quite strong and bitter. Better used for medicine.
Eating broadleaf plantain seeds
In our opinion, broadleaf plantain seed shoots and seeds have quite a bit of culinary potential. (Narrowleaf plantain seeds are much too small to be useful in the kitchen.)
As broadleaf seeds set and mature along their seed spikes/shoots, they begin to turn purple-brown. Eaten plain, they don’t have much flavor – similar to quinoa grains.
However, once sautéed with a bit of olive oil or butter and sprinkled with sea salt, the seeds are nutty and quite tasty. Sort of like a mildly nutty popcorn. Hold one end of the cooked seed shoot with your fingers and strip the seeds off with your teeth. The stems are somewhat bitter, so best used in your compost.
What’s the best edible plantain species for leafy greens?
If you plan to intentionally grow plantain as an edible garden green, we highly recommend Buck’s horn plantain (Plantago coronopus). (You can buy Buck’s horn seeds online.)
Buck’s horn plantain is very popular in certain regions of Europe and is becoming increasing popular in the US as well. You might see it on the menu at a fancy restaurant or farmers market under its other common names: Minutina, Herba Stella, or Staghorn.
Buck’s horn rightly deserves its culinary popularity. The leaves offer a rich, nutty flavor and the tender young flower spikes taste like grassy portobello mushrooms. Another nice feature: buck’s horn plantain is a short-lived perennial that can grow right through winter in most US climate regions.
How to grow plantain
Like most plants lumped unceremoniously into the “weed” category, plantain is a very easy plant to grow. Here’s how we grow plantain (*recommended species: Plantago coronopus aka Buck’s horn plantain as mentioned above):
1. Start plantain seeds indoors anywhere between 6 weeks before your last frost date all the way up until late summer for milder climates. Cooler climates: we recommend starting spring-early summer so the plants have time to produce and get their roots well-established before frosts/freezes hit.
2. Sow seeds 1/4″ deep in organic seed starting mix in your choice of reusable plastic cells or biodegradable cells. Buck’s horn plantain transplants easily and doesn’t mind a bit of root disturbance.
3. Transplant seedlings outdoors after 4-6 weeks. Select full-sun spots for best production, although plantain tolerates part shade. The plants also tolerate pretty much any soil conditions (including very poor soils) but perform best in rich, biologically active soil amended with compost or worm castings.
4. After transplanting, top-dress around your plantain with your choice of wood chips, straw/hay, or pine straw to reduce weeds, improve soil health, and minimize irrigation. Water in the young seedlings to ensure soil-root contact.
Once established, you may never need to water your Buck’s horn plantain again unless you’re in the midst of a drought.
How to harvest & eat plantain leaves
Both the leaves and seed shoots on plantain are edible. Some species are better than others for edibility. Again, our personal favorite for edible greens is Buck’s horn plantain (Plantago coronopus) . We use our broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) and narrowleaf plantain (Plantago lanceolata) for medicinal use (insect stings) more so than as a veggie.
For ideal texture and flavor, harvest young leaves and young seed shoots. Simply snip them off close to the ground. The plants will continue to produce new leaves and seed shoots, making a nice cut-and-come-again veggie.
Plantain leaves are great in mixed green salads. Buck’s horn plantain is unique and delicious enough to be used all on its own in single-green salads or dishes that call for wilted or cooked greens.
I enjoy chewing on young Buck’s horn seed shoots out in the garden. Like broadleaf plantain seed shoots, they can also be sautéed in a little olive oil and sprinkled in salt, then served as a unique side.
Mature plantain seeds from Broadleaf plantain and Buck’s horn plantain can also be threshed and eaten like a grain. Given how small the seeds are and how much plantain it would require to get a suitable yield, we’ve never attempted this feat.
Medicinal properties of plantain
As mentioned in the opening of this article: we primarily use our narrowleaf and broadleaf plantain for medicinal purposes: the occasional bee, wasp, or fire ant sting. To use plantain for this purpose, simply chew a leaf in your mouth and apply the poultice directly to the sting. (Remove the stinger first if one is present, so it doesn’t continue to envenomate.)
If you’re planning to continue to move around, place a bandaid over the poultice to hold it in place. The pain of the sting should dissipate within minutes. Repeat this process as-needed over the course of the next 24 hours if pain or itchiness persists.
Has modern science proven plantain’s folk medicine uses?
Plantain has a long history of use as a folk medicine for a wide range of ailments: dry/itchy skin, insect bites, urinary tract infections, constipation, and more. However, sometimes folk medicines don’t stand up to modern scientific scrutiny.
Our ancestors didn’t tend to perform double-blind placebo controlled studies prior to medicating themselves. However, they often had intimate connections with the flora and fauna around them, stumbled upon things that worked as medicines, and passed down that knowledge for generations.
Surprisingly, we were unable to find any research studies on the effectiveness of plantain for use treating insect bites, which is one of its primary uses in folk medicine. What we can say from our own anecdotal experiences is that it’s the most effective medicine we’ve ever used to treat insect stings.
Like any medicine, it may or may not be effective for everyone and/or every type of insect sting. Hopefully, researchers can do some well-conducted studies proving plantain’s relative efficacy for various folk medicine uses, including insect bites.
As a 2016 study concluded:
Some traditional uses of these plants have been pharmacologically validated by identifying specific bioactive molecules, although the mechanisms of action remain unclear. The Plantago genus is also a promising source of novel bioactive molecules and multifunctional polysaccharides because only a few species have been investigated comprehensively thus far.
Hey you university researchers: write your grants!
Now you know how to ID, grow, and forage plantain. You also know how to use plantain as a medicinal or culinary plant, plus which Plantago species are best in the kitchen.
Enjoy and remember not to wear dark clothes near a beehive!
Get deeper in the weeds with these articles from Tyrant Farms:
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