The White Man’s Foot: Plantago sps

You’ve probably trodden on this humble herb a thousand times, or tried to eradicate it from your lawn. Like the first pioneers discovering America, this is a pioneer plant – tough, coping with most soils, springing back from punishment by lawnmower and boot. Did you know it is also incredibly useful, both as a food plant and medicinally? Plus, it is actually tasty, with a creamy mushroom flavour. You do need to know what parts to use when however.

Once known, this plant is rarely confused with anything else. All subspecies of Plantain (Plantago) have multiple, lateral sinew like ribs along the length of the leaf, with leaves coming out of a central rosette close to the ground. The leaves are thick and leathery. Greater plantain (P.major) has round leaves, whilst Ribwort plantain (P.lanceolata) has spear shaped leaves. All can be used the same ways. The flower is produced atop a tough central stalk and is a compact head with yellow-purple or white stamens respectively. These are the two most common subspecies you are likely to find inland.

On the coast line you may find Sea Plantain with its strap-like leaves (P. maritima) and Buck’s Horn Plantain (P.coronopus) a little further inland on coastal grasslands.

All these are edible, so scout about wherever you are. Their preferred habitat is open ground near pathways, as their seeds are spread by humans and other path-using animals!

Early in the season, you’ll be wanting the leaves. Pick a couple of the tenderest leaves beginning to unfurl in the centre of the rosette. These are less likely to have been peed on or stamped on, too! Wash them well. These thick leaves can stand up to cooking well in a stew, soup or sauce. Plus, it’s always safer to cook these plants as they grow so close to the ground and can get muck on them. Plantain is full of Vitamin A, the same vitamin in carrots that gives you good eyesight. There are also good levels of Vitamin C. Not only that, but Plantain leaves contain a mucilage that soothes inflammation, both internally and externally – useful in cases of IBS.

Once the tender young green flower heads come up on their stalks, you’re in for a treat. these have a lovely mushroom flavour and delicious texture, can be eaten raw, (I’ll risk it if they are high off the ground and in pleasant surroundings) and are in my humble opinion the best part of the plant to eat. They contain high levels of protein (one study in S.America found protein was as high as 17%) plus three important fatty acids (linoleic, oleic, linolenic). They don’t have many carbs, however, so if you are looking for energy, try some other plants with starchy roots.

Try my recipe below for ‘Baby Snake Surprise’: (Creamy Plantain Gnocchi!)

‘Baby Snake’ Gnocchi! (named by my son)

You will need:

I packet gnocchi

150g green plantain flower heads

Half a pint of soya or dairy plain yoghurt

3 tbsp mayonnaise

3 slices Shredded or diced ham/bacon/vegi bacon

1 tbsp butter

1 tbsp olive oil

I clove garlic, minced

OPTIONAL Fresh chard and pickled sweetie drop peppers

Salt and pepper

  1. Melt the butter with the olive oil. Toss in the plantain flower heads and bacon and saute for 5 minutes til tender.
  2. Stir in the garlic for 1 minute.
  3. Boil the gnocchi in salted water for 3 mins til fluffy.
  4. Take off the heat and leave to cool for 2 mins.
  5. Mix the mayonnaise in with the bacon and plantain. When cooled, mix in the yoghurt.
  6. Stick it in a bowl and add your sides. Doesn’t it look like baby snakes!?

Right, so now later in the season we are looking at the mature seed heads. These are ready when they turn a golden brown and feel ‘crispy’. I have collected Greater Plantain seeds and added them to baked breads. This species has the biggest seeds, black in colour, which need to be rubbed out of their husks. That’s not to say they are big, because they are not. If you are actually trying to collect enough to survive in the wild, or make your own wild flour as forager Fergus Drennan did, you are unlikely to gain enough energy out of this process compared to what you put in collecting, husking, then milling the seeds! (Fergus had to give up his year long plan of living entirely off vegan foraged foods for this reason.) They make a lovely bread roll topping however, or try adding them to sushi or salads.

And it doesn’t stop there. Suffering from an itchy bite or sting? Just find a plantain leaf and rub it between your fingers, squeezing out the juice. Help it along with a splash of water or (shock horror) saliva. Place this on the affected part and feel the relief. Plantain contains antihistamines, and is far superior to ‘dock leaf’ in this respect.

Stay tuned for more fun with plantain, as I experiment with fermenting and pickling the flower heads.

(Come on, foraging is the most fun you can have without paying. Except for sex.)

Laugh, you lot…

The White Man’s Foot: Plantago sps

Tempura Reedmace Flowerheads

Just thought I’d share this tapas recipe I dreamed up using young green Reedmace flowerheads from Astral Park.

Pick the central stalk like a sweetcorn.

I made a batter with sparkling water (no ice – no fridge on the boat), 1 egg and normal plain flour, sieving the flour well. I have to admit I preferred them with mayo in the ends it didn’t swamp their delicate flavour.

I boiled the flower heads first for 5 minutes in just enough water to cover. This makes them more tender. I patted them dry with kitchen towel then rolled them in flour and then in batter. I popped them in a deep saucepan with 3cm of hot rapeseed oil for 5 minutes, then left them drain on more kitchen towel. I ate the lot in one sitting. (Pig.) They are very high in quality protein however, especially good if you are vegan (though you’ll need to use cornflour then, not egg).

Tempura Reedmace flower heads with chilli jam dip.

I also made a chowder type soup by shucking off the flowerheads and cooking them with coconut milk and veg stock. You can basically use these things in any recipe that calls for sweetcorn.

Reedmace chowder with sweet peppers.

Consult my earlier post ‘On the Trail of Typha’s Gold’ for more info on this amazing plant. if you can’t find any green flower heads, the next thing in season is the amazing yellow pollen, great in baking recipes.

Tempura Reedmace Flowerheads

Sipping on… Tangy, Spiky Oregon Grape!

My Mahonia syrup, mint leaf, grape juice, lime and sparkling water mocktail. I got the recipe from Lottie Muir’s book ‘Wild Cocktails’.

Mahonia syrup and gin! Start building your cocktail cabinet now…

While flicking through Lottie Muir’s ‘Wild Cocktail’ bible, I was astounded to find that the ill tempered looking evergreen shrub I walk my son past every day to school actually has edible berries! Mahonia, or Oregon grape, is commonly planted in hedgerows and park boundaries by councils as it is drought tolerant, shade tolerant, can handle most soils and most pests can’t eat it. It also presents a fearsome obstacle to a would be burglar with its leathery, pinnate (divided) leaves with thorny teeth. It has attractive yellow clusters of flowers in Spring, which ripen into oval, purplish blue berries that have the same opaque flush you find on blueberries. In Mahonia’s case this is caused by a waxy coating which is quite harmless.

Mahonia with ripe berries outside Tesco car park, canal side!

There are over 70 species worldwide, but the most common Mahonia planted in the UK are Mahonia japonica and Mahonia aquifolium. M.aquifolium has rounder berries. You can use them both the same way.

Interestingly enough, there are divided opinions on the edibility of the berries. Healthline.com states that the berberine they contain is helpful in the oral treatment of IBS and other gut inflammation, and they have been used in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) for centuries to treat psoriasis, stomach issues, heartburn and depression. However, some sources claim the berberine is harmful. I had a look at some studies by scientists at http://www.frontersin.org, in a paper titled ‘Toxicological Effects of Berberine and Sanguinarine’ they state that low doses berberine encourages the growth of cancer cells, whilst in higher doses it acts to slow their growth! Confusing or what! The same scientists also tell us berberine is antimicrobial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Compounds in Oregon grape are shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi. You can buy all sorts of herbal supplements containing berberine, so in my humble opinion sticking a far more dilute version (I.e. fruit) in some booze or syrup and drinking it very occasionally is pretty safe.

Various foraging websites such as http://www.eatweeds.com, http://www.wildfood.uk, http://www.growinghealthykids.co.uk, http://www.natureandgarden.com and http://www.pfaf.org all state that mahonia berries are tasty and edible, used in jams, beverages, and smoothies. Pioneers of the Pacific North-west of America used the berries as an important source of Vitamin C, especially as it is evergreen and around in the winter. It is great for jam as it is naturally high in pectin. And it’s a good idea to add sugar anyway as this stuff is on the tart side…

Mahonia berries ready for use – watch out, they are messy, with a purple dye!

It was also used medicinally by Native Americans for internal bacterial infections – from sinusitis to pneumonia and even TB. It has also been useful in fighting off food poisoning and dysentery, anything where bacteria is being naughty in your guts… To use a decoction of Mahonia medicinally, boil some pieces of the root, inner bark or dried leaves until the water reduces by half, then top up with half the lost amount of water.

I made some Mahonia Gin and some Mahonia Syrup, both from Lottie Muir (of The Midnight Apothecary cocktail bar) in her book Wild Cocktails.

MAHONIA GIN

100g/1 cup mahonia berries, stripped from stems

100g white sugar

Gin – enough to fill a large jam jar

  1. Shuck the berries off the stems and weigh.
  2. Prick holes in the berries with a fork.
  3. Bang in a clean (sterilised) jam jar and add the sugar. Mix well.
  4. Pour the gin over til the jar is full.
  5. Seal and give it a good shake.
  6. Store in a cool place out of direct sunlight. Check back in a month and taste.
  7. Strain using a fine sieve into a sterilised decanting bottle.
Mahonia gin…straight after pouring. Will check back in a few days.

MAHONIA SYRUP

2 cups mahonia berries

2 cups white granulated sugar

1 cup water

  1. Put the berries in a non reactive pan (stainless steel or enamel) and heat gently til they start to boil.
  2. Quickly switch down to simmer.
  3. Crush with a potato masher til the liquid is purple red.
  4. Pour into a measuring jug.
  5. For every cup of juice, add 1 cup of sugar.
  6. Return to pan and bring to the boil.
  7. Simmer for a further 5 minutes.

This can be mixed with more mild juices such as grape or apple to make a lovely mocktail with lime, grape juice and mint leaves. Yum. Will do some experiments and come back with the results later…and possibly a bangin’ head from the gin.

My take on the ‘Only the Mahonia’ mocktail recipe by The Midnight Apothecary

juice of 1 lime

5 mint leaves

65ml white grape juice

40ml mahonia syrup

Sparkling water to top up (as I live on a boat with no freezer for ice!)

  1. Mix the mahonia syrup and the lime juice in a cocktail mixer.
  2. Rub the mint leaves and add ice if you have it!
  3. Add the grape juice.
  4. Top up with sparkling water
  5. Garnish with a sprig of mahonia berries, slice of lime and a mahonia leaf sprig. Enjoy!
Sipping on… Tangy, Spiky Oregon Grape!