The wide green leaves and yellow-green flower spikes of broad-leaf plantain are a familiar (and, usually, unwelcome) sight in lawns and gardens throughout North America, where this weedy perennial has naturalized. The species is native to Eurasia; its common name, plantain, is the French version of the Latin plantago, which means “plant.”
Some Native American tribes called plantain “Englishman’s foot” because it seemed to flourish in areas visited by British colonists — as a weedy species, it would spread to disturbed habitats, including the fields, pastures, and roads developed by the settlers. Despite its wild nature, broad-leaf plantain can be highly useful.
Common Names: Broad-Leaf Plantain, Greater Plantain, Rat-Tail Plantain
Description: Thick, grooved leaves with longitudinal veins form a rosette near the ground; tiny yellow-green flowers on slender 6- to 18-inch spikes
Hardiness: To Zone 2
Flowering: May to September
Parts Used: Leaves and seeds
Range/Habitat: Native to Eurasia; naturalized throughout North America in disturbed areas, such as roadsides and fields
Young plantain leaves can be eaten in salads or steamed lightly and eaten as a vegetable. In recipes that include cooked spinach, try substituting cooked young plantain leaves. Noted forager “Wildman” Steve Brill suggests using the older, fibrous leaves along with other herbs and vegetables to make a mineral-rich vegetable stock. (Remove the plantain leaves before eating.)
Plantain leaves have long been used as a folk medicine. In Shakespeare’s 16th-century play Romeo and Juliet, Romeo tells Juliet that plantain leaf is excellent as a treatment for broken skin. Indeed, plantain leaves contain soothing, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and vulnerary (blood coagulant) compounds.
The astringent, antibacterial leaves, bruised or crushed and rubbed against the affected area, are a traditional remedy for poison ivy, insect bites and stings, superficial wounds, and skin conditions such as eczema. Plantain leaf tea is also soothing to the respiratory system and the urinary tract, and it makes a good mouthwash, reputed to help heal sores. It has been used as a diuretic and to relieve dry cough.
Caution: Plantain may cause contact dermatitis in sensitive individuals. Avoid harvesting plantain from roadsides or other areas commonly treated with herbicides or otherwise exposed to toxic substances.
How to grow it
Plantain grows in moist sandy or gravelly soil in full sun or partial shade. Considered an invasive weed throughout most of the United States, the plant self-seeds freely. Harvest the leaves before the plant flowers.