Plantain, Narrowleaf (Plantago lanceolata)

Plantain, Narrowleaf (Plantago lanceolata)

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Plantago lanceolata, also known as Ribwort Plantain, is closely related to Broadleaf Plantain, with its main differences being the shapes of their leaves, and the way that seeds cluster on their stalks. The ‘bud’ of its flowers is said to taste similar to mushrooms when cooked, quite different from the mucilaginous seeds on the flowering stalk of Plantago major. 

As is the case with many potent and noble plants, Plantain grows in abundance in most regions of North America, Europe, and Asia , but few people realize the ubiquity of this medicine plant. And many times, those who do dismiss it as a weed, to be pulled from garden beds or stomped on as it pushes up through sidewalk cracks. As with plant beings with similar cultural associations, this perennial is fond of human-altered soils, flourishing in the spaces that humans have degraded (particularly very compacted earth). Plantago’s fibrous root system breaks up the hardened soil it so loves, allowing the conditions to be more amenable to other plants. The seeds of this plant are resilient, able to germinate in the soil even decades after they have been dormant. Its name is thought to originate in the Latin word ‘planta,’ for ‘sole of a foot’ in allusion to the shape of its leaf. 

Plantago is a nutritionally dense wild edible, as well as an easy topical application to fresh bug bites or wounds. Its leaves are eaten raw or cooked, and the roots and seeds may be consumed as well. Birds and mammals in the surrounding environment are fond of munching on this plant. One only has to chew the leaves into a poultice, apply it to the affected area, and wait for a bit— soon enough, the swelling and itch of a bite should be down, or, with a bit more time, a splinter may be easily removed from where it was stuck. Oils can be infused with Plantain to create an effective salve. 

Plantain was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Saxons, and from early on represented a devotion to the path of Christianity. Indigenous Americans deemed the plant ‘White Man’s Foot,’ as it seemed to appear in the wake of wherever European settlers traveled (unsurprising, given they were the ones to carry this crop to the Americas). Seeds of Plantago have been found in the stomachs of mummified ‘bog people’ of 3rd-5th century Europe. One doesn’t have to look far to see references to this plant in literature and art, from Chaucer to Shakespeare. Whether strolling through a squash field or city streets, Plantain will surely greet you.