Plant of the Week ~ Plantago (Plantain)

Plantago major growing in a meadow
Plantago major growing in a meadow

This week we take a look at what many people may consider a weed, Plantago sp. (Plantain). Most ‘weeds’ have a use for humans and wildlife and play a key role in natures cycle. The word weed really just means an unwanted plant. A herbaceous perennial, plantain does most of its growth during spring and summer with it’s flowering taking place from early summer to early autumn, depending on the local weather conditions. Plantain has many uses in our green spaces, let’s take a closer look below.

Cultivation & Care

The distinct flower heads of Plantago lanceolata
The distinct flower heads of Plantago lanceolata

Succeeding in most soils, plantain is an easy plant to cultivate. Moderately fertile soil in a sunny position is preferred, though plants will often grow on poor land. Not much shade will be tolerated so if you see some growing, it’s worth cutting back any plants that may overshadow it, provided the plants in question will respond well to such pruning.

Plantago species reseed prolifically so there are no special maintenance requirements. If you have some plantain plants in a spot you are happy with, they will inevitably set seed there which will germinate at the start of the next growing season.

Species

There are many species of plantain, below I have included the two species you are most likely to come across in the garden.

Plantago major (Common Plantain)

Botanical illustration detailing the separate parts of Plantago major
Botanical illustration detailing the separate parts of Plantago major

This species is quite easy to identify with is broad, almost round leaves with the distinct parallel veins. The inflorescence is long and narrow on a stalk reaching 20 cm high, sometimes taller, depending on the site. This species is commonly found growing in lawns and meadows.

Plantago lanceolata (Ribwort Plantain)

Botanical illustration detailing the separate parts of Plantago lanceolata
Botanical illustration detailing the separate parts of Plantago lanceolata

Contrasting with the above species, this one has long, narrow leaves and the flower spike is more rounded and not as long, appearing at the end of a long flower stalk which can grow to heights of 15 – 25 cm. This species tends to grow in lawns, grasslands disturbed/cultivated ground.

Edible Uses

Plantago lanceolata foliage, ripe for harvest
Plantago lanceolata foliage, ripe for harvest

Compassionate Roots can not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants.  Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally and when in doubt about eating a plant you have not eaten before.

  • Leaves ~ Young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. Removing the fibrous veins beforehand will make them more palatable and easier to eat. Many people blanch the leaves before including them in mixed leaf salads.
  • Seeds ~ These can be eaten raw or cooked or ground up and added to flour. Bear in mind the harvesting of seeds can be quite time consuming.
  • Tea plant ~ Leaves can be dried and brewed as a tea.

Other Uses

Plantain can be useful to humans, wildlife and the environment. Below are some of the uses they provide.

  • Fabric stiffener ~ Mucilage from the seed coats can serve this purpose. They are prepared by macerating the seed in hot water.
  • Nutrient accumulator ~ Plantain is particularly good at accumulating calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, silicon and sulfur. These nutrients are stored in the leaves of the plant which break down and add the nutrients to the soil when the leaves drop. You can also manually do this and place them on the surface to decompose and enrich the soil. This will also attract beneficial micro-organisms.
  • Pioneer species ~ As one of the first plant species to arrive on bare/disturbed land, plantain prepares the land ready for population by other species.
  • Dye plant ~ The whole plant can be used to obtain brown and gold dyes.
  • Medicine ~ Plantain has many herbal actions on the body, it is most commonly used to stop bleeding, reduce swelling and encourage tissue repair. It is also antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, a natural pain killer and anti-histamine. It is administered as a poultice, tincture or ointment.
  • Nectar plant ~ Insects, particularly bees will make good use of the nectar provided by the flowers.
  • Caterpillar food ~ Many species of caterpillar will eat the leaves of this species.

Compassionate Roots can help you create a vibrant wildlife garden for you and your family to enjoy all year round. Contact us for more information.

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