One of the first plants to begin to flourish in the spring here is plantain. It never really disappears in hot weather — it just shrinks down and sleeps under the plants that thrive in the heat of summer. This past weekend I noticed it popping up everywhere, a harbinger of spring despite weeks of cold weather still ahead.
Various species of plantain (Plantago spp.) grow almost everywhere in the world. It is an incredibly tough perennial plant that grows in lawns, by roadsides, in mowed fields and almost anywhere else it can gain a foothold including cracks in concrete and asphalt. Compacted, infertile, acidic soil? No problem for this pioneer plant. Lawn aficionados hate it. Their kids turn the seed heads on their tall stalks into projectiles and shoot them at each other. And almost all of us at some point have consumed psyllium husks, which are the seed hulls of an Indian species, Plantago ovata, with a large glass of water.
Today, some folks try to stamp it out but former generations readily spread the seeds and took the plant with them when they migrated. All of the parts above ground are an effective medicinal herb. While the seeds and husks are used for constipation, the green parts are used for irritated nasal passages and throats by shrinking swollen tissue and coating it with a soothing layer. Used externally it is an anti-toxin for poison ivy and other minor skin irritations and injuries. Growing up, all the kids knew that if you chewed up some leaves and placed them over the wound plantain would ease the pain of a bee sting.
For eating, pick the young leaves, wash and cook like you would any other green and you will be rewarded with a dish similar to spinach which is high in vitamin A, C and iron. Since the leaves are quite high in fiber, a modest serving is suggested. The flower pods and stalks can be dried, ground and saved for use as a laxative or used like sassafras leaves (aka gumbo filé) to thicken stews.
There are several species of plantain naturalized in this area: P. lanceolata, P. cordata, P. major, P. virginica and sometimes P. wrightiana, but they all work the same although, P. virginica is too hairy for eating for me. As always, when foraging in the wild be 100% sure of your plant identification and always verify that your local species’ are edible and do not interfere with any personal health conditions. Finally, like any bulking laxative, do not use if you have or suspect an intestinal obstruction.