DISCLAIMER: Do not eat or otherwise use any plants without doing your own research. I will not be liable if you misidentify a plant or follow misinformation I give (although if I give misinformation, please let me know!).
Plantain is usually found in riparian (near river) habitats and in shaded areas. This one was found right off a dock
There is a phrase I hear quite often when people discuss foraging, and that is: “Make your food your medicine, and your medicine your food.” Of course, there are variations, but the general sentiment remains. Plantain could not fit this phrase more if it tried. It’s a tasty food, and excellent when it comes to various wound and dermal treatments.
The elastic strings (sometimes referred to as plant sinew) can be used to make string for various purposes
The plant you see, Plantago major, doesn’t look too appetizing at first. It’s usually a bit ragged (especially late in the year), and doesn’t particularly stand out. However, if it’s prepared right, its use has a respectable place in the foraging chef’s repertoire. More on that and the medicinal value later.
The leaves are the most commonly used edible portion, but the seeds have their merit as well. The seeds are made of soluble fiber and the casings, commonly referred to as psyllium and sold in health food stores (Metamucil is a commonly sold source of psyllium), are primarily insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber helps prevent or reduce symptoms from diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Insoluble fiber is more typically used to aid in weight loss and constipation, but they both can attach to lipids to prevent absorption helping in weight loss, and both will tend to keep you regular.
Time for the extras.
Note the parallel veins with inconspicuous secondary veins interspersed
The leaves form a basal rosette. Many people mistake this plant for a monocot at first, as the primary veins all run parallel to each other. However, upon closer inspection, the leaf does have secondary veins all around. These leaves are often glossy and, in a few uncommon species, finely hirsute (hairy). The flowers form a spike which, depending on the species, can be up to 70cm tall with the spike covered in flowers or only the top centimeter. The flowers give way to small, brown fruits which can be up to 1mm in diameter in most species. The key identifying feature is the elastic that comes from the midrib. You’ve gotta be delicate in pulling it apart, and can’t snap at an angle – it must be more of a pull. It works best with older leaves. Thankfully, this plant is fairly easy to tell apart from other plants and doesn’t typically need this test, but I leave it there to assure the more fearful ones that it is, in fact, plantain.
The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, but the older they are, the more I tend towards cooking. They’re packed with calcium and vitamins A, C, and K. They become tough and fibrous as they age. When they’re very old, remove the elastic from the leaves – it’s the toughest and least appetizing part. Pascal Baudar has a method for cooking it like seaweed – boil 3 minutes for young leaves and 5 for old leaves. As for the fruits and seeds, you can grind them into flour use them in any baked goods you desire. They’ll keep you healthy and regular.
As for medicinal usage, they are the best dermal treatment out there. If you make a poultice (chew the leaves and spit them on wounds, sores, or any superficial ailments) or an ointment (wash and chop the leaves alongside any flowers or fruits and leave in olive oil for a few months), you can rest assured that its aucubin, allantoin, and other chemicals will cause your wound to be painless, free of bacteria, and quick to heal thanks to the analgesic and antimicrobial effects, alongside its ability to hasten cell division.
The plant sinew also has its use in making string, though it takes effort to get all the sinew into a string long enough to be used. It can be good for flossing, should you need.
Have fun foraging!
Side note: Allantoin is also kerolytic, meaning it softens keratin. Because of this, it’s often used in commercial application to treat warts and other skin lesions. Perhaps you could find a use for this yourself.