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…

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