How to Plant and Grow Plantain, A Culinary and Medicinal Herb
Largely ignored by the modern gardener, and often regarded as an irksome weed, plantain is one of those overlooked and often ridiculed plants that actually has quite a lot to offer.
Once we learn to appreciate it, that is.
With edible nutritious leaves, medicinal value, and ecological importance, this plant is really worth a second look.
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Luckily, many gardeners are beginning to spread the word about the true value of this useful medicinal herb.
What You’ll Learn
What Is Plantain?
Commonly found growing in lawns and disturbed areas, once you learn to identify this herbaceous perennial, you will likely start noticing it everywhere.
There are about 200 species in the Plantago genus. The three most common varieties found in the US are broadleaf plantain (P. major), Rugel’s plantain (P. rugelii), and ribwort plantain (P. lanceolata).
All of these are known by many additional common names, and all are used in herbal medicine.
Broadleaf plantain is a compact perennial flowering herb that has low growing, egg-shaped, waxy green leaves with prominent veins. It’s also known as birdseed, broadleaf plantain, healing blade, and hen plant.
Said to have been brought to what is now the US by the Puritans, some Native Americans called it “white man’s footprint.” Foliage can grow to about six inches long and four inches wide.
In late summer, it produces a green, leafless stalk that rises above the leaves, with long, spiky clusters of tiny, densely packed greenish-brown flowers with purple stamens.
Named for 19th century German botanist Ferdinand Ignatius Xavier Rugel, Rugel’s plantain looks similar to broadleaf, and the two are often confused.
Its wide, viened leaves are slightly lighter green and have less of a waxy feel to them. The base of the petioles where leaves attach to stems may also be purple or reddish, and it produces densely packed spiky clusters of off-white flowers.
It’s also known as American, blackseed, or pale plantain.
Ribwort or English plantain is much taller, with thin, lance-shaped leaf blades that are rarely more than an inch in breadth. In fact, it’s sometimes called narrowleaf plantain, as well as ribleaf, buckthorn, or lamb’s tongue.
The leafless flower stalks can be more than two feet long with pointed, dense flower spikes. Flowers are brownish green, with long white stamens.
All of these species grow readily in disturbed, compacted soils, including rocky and sandy terrain, and can be found in abundance all over the place, particularly in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9.
As such, this plant plays an important ecological role in revitalizing disturbed and compacted soil.
As plantain spreads to cover an area (and it will spread, thanks to the many thousands of seeds that it produces each season), the fibrous roots break up hard, compressed soils, simultaneously preventing erosion by holding the earth in place.
While many think of it as a weed these days, plantain has not always been regarded as such, and it has in fact been used in food and medicine for thousands of years.
Cultivation and History
Both broadleaf and ribwort plantain are native to Europe and Asia, and Rugel’s originated in North America. But these species and many others can be found growing all over the world.
A highly accessible and abundant healing herb, plantain has been used in herbal medicine for a very long time.
Around 327 BC, Alexander the Great was said to have noted the culinary and medicinal use of plantain while in India, and brought the plant back with him to Europe.
The Lacnunga (or “Remedies” in English), an Anglo-Saxon collection of medical texts from the 10th century CE, included plantain as one of nine sacred herbs used in combination as a cure for poisoning and infection.
Even Shakespeare mentioned it in several of his plays.
“Your plantain leaf is excellent for that… for your broken shin,” Romeo says to Benvolio. As Shakespere references, this herbal remedy has long been used as a salve for scrapes and minor injuries.
But Romeo also dishes out the same medicine Benvolio has given him with his mockery, insinuating that Benvolio has offered little help for his love-sickness.
Referred to by herbalists as a vulnerary herb, this plant is perhaps best known as a remedy that may help to heal wounds.
It contains slippery mucilage that is soothing and healing to the skin, and is often applied topically to treat all kinds of minor wounds, including insect stings and bites, allergic rashes such as those from poison ivy and stinging nettle, hives, burns, cuts, and abrasions.
It is also prepared as a poultice to draw out splinters or glass.
To make a poultice, crush or blend the herb into a paste and apply it to the affected area. Wrap the mixture with gauze or a bandage to keep it in place.
Leaving it on for anywhere from 10 minutes to overnight is recommended, reapplying the mixture every few hours if needed.
As this herb is soothing and anti-inflammatory, it is also sometimes taken internally to alleviate gut inflammation and respiratory problems, such as chronic bronchitis, irritable coughs, and sinusitis.
And it’s used in herbal as well as commercially available laxative blends – Rosemary Gladstar says in her book “Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health” that the “psyllium seeds used in Metamucil are produced from a Plantago species.”
Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health, Available on Amazon
This plant is edible, nutritious, and safe for use by children and even animals.
Cultivating this plant takes very little effort. This prevalent garden weed is going to grow under the right conditions, whether you want it to or not.
You can easily forage for plantain. But if you want to try to cultivate a patch, just find a spot in the garden that suits you. Pretty much anywhere is fine. This perennial will grow in full sun or part shade, in virtually any soil type.
It may be grown from seed or transplants.
Direct sow seeds in the spring. The seeds are tiny, and plants produce many of them. Broadcast them over your selected area, and barely cover them with soil. Keep the soil moist until they sprout.
To increase germination rates, you can cold stratify seeds before planting by placing them in the refrigerator for a few weeks.
Seeds are spread by the wind, and this plant will self sow readily. If you already have a few plants growing around the garden, either collect the seed yourself after flowering, or allow plants to self-sow around your garden to grow next season.
If you find some growing wild, you can dig them up and transplant elsewhere to encourage spreading wherever you like.
This plant is easy to transplant since it has shallow, fibrous roots, plus a stronger taproot. You can encourage a patch to grow wherever you want it to by moving a few plants to the area.
Be careful to keep the taproot and as many of the more fibrous roots intact as you can when you dig, and plant them to the same depth at which they were growing elsewhere. Water well, and watch ‘em grow.
How to Grow
You should keep the soil moist until seeds start to sprout, but once the plants are established, required maintenance is minimal.
There really isn’t much that needs to be done to keep them going, and they will happily grow and spread! All you have to do is wait until it is time to harvest.
Plantain can survive mowing or trampling in high-traffic areas of the yard, it can be planted in clay soil, and it can even help to keep the soil in place in areas prone to erosion.
But if you plan to pick the tender young leaves to add to your salads, or you wish to use them to make tea or other herbal medicines, it’s best to dedicate a more protected spot in your garden to growing this plant for edible use.
- Seeds grow best when given a period of exposure to low temperatures prior to sprouting. Taking the time to cold stratify your collected seeds before planting will increase germination rates.
- To keep the herb from spreading to other parts of the garden where it is less desirable, you may want to grow it in an entirely separate area. If the herb does start to creep into parts of your yard where it isn’t wanted, just dig the whole plant up and either harvest it, or move it to your designated garden bed.
- You can also plant it in compacted soil that you wish to improve for future crops, or areas in danger of erosion.
Where to Buy
Because this plant is often considered a weed, it is not always easy to source seed commercially.
Generally, your best bet is to find some growing nearby and either transplant it, or harvest and save the seeds to sow in the springtime.
A few options are available online as well.
Or, if you prefer the English variety, P. lanceolata seeds are available for purchase from Outsidepride via Amazon.
Managing Pests and Disease
Plantain plants are hardy, with a tendency to thrive in adverse conditions – that’s why they’re known as weeds by many people, after all!
You shouldn’t face many issues when growing this plant at home. Here are just a few problems to keep an eye out for:
Herbivores and Omnivores
Plantain provides food for all sorts of wildlife. Herbivores including rabbits, deer, cattle, and sheep may munch on the greens and flower stalks.
Omnivores including groundhogs (aka woodchucks) and songbirds may stop by to eat the leaves or seeds as well.
Several types of insects may also like to visit your plantain crop as a source of food, though visits from friendly pollinators are uncommon. If you’re growing enough, you should have plenty to share with the bugs!
These small insects like to suck sap from leaves, damaging plants. Management is generally not necessary, however, as it is unlikely that an infestation will get out of control.
If you see them, knock them off with a strong spray from the hose.
Junonia coenia, or common buckeye butterflies, lay single eggs on plants, as opposed to the clusters of other types of butterfly eggs that you might see on other host plants around the garden.
Their larvae like to munch on the leafy greens.
These caterpillars are solitary creatures who tend to live alone, and they shouldn’t cause too much damage overall. Pick them off and move them elsewhere, if you like.
These small jumping insects chew small holes in leaves, which may result in wilting or stunted plants.
In the unlikely event that an infestation becomes serious, try placing sticky traps around the garden bed to capture these beetles.
Few diseases tend to plague plantain, but be sure to keep an eye on maintaining proper airflow between plants, particularly during extended periods of rain and high humidity.
Plantain may be susceptible to powdery mildew. This fungus causes lesions to appear, which can eventually spread over entire stem and leaf surfaces.
A mixture of baking soda, dish soap, and water sprayed on plants can help to keep mildew in check.
Leaves can be harvested at any time during the growing season – before, during, or after flowering.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you want to harvest the fresh inner leaves. The outer ones, which are older, tend to be tougher. Just snip off the leaves as you need them and enjoy!
Early-season harvests tend to be best for making tinctures.
Seeds can be harvested when the heads are fully developed, drying, and starting to turn brown.
You can check if they are ready to harvest by taking a seed head and shaking it against your hand. If seeds come flying out, they are ready to go.
Run your fingers up the dried stalks one at a time to gently pull off the seeds. Collect them in a plastic bag.
Sift the seeds through a fine strainer a couple of times, and then blow on them gently to remove the husks.
The roots are also used in medicine, though less commonly.
Root harvest is best done in the fall, when the plants’ energy is directed downward, away from the leaves. Just pull up a plant and gather the roots.
Don’t worry too much about over harvesting, as this plant will likely keep coming back no matter how much you take out.
When foraging for wild plantain, be sure to pay attention to where you are getting it from, and be cautious about harvesting plants grown in potentially contaminated areas. Avoid roadsides, driveways, unfamiliar terrain, and areas that may have been sprayed with herbicides.
While this plant is best used fresh, especially for topical application, you can dry the leaves to use them for tea or to make herbal washes.
To dry the leaves, dehydrate them at 95°F until they are crumbly, checking their texture occasionally until they are dry.
You can also lay them on a screen or tray in a dark, dry location to dry, or hang them upside down in bundles.
Once the leaves are fully dried, store them in a tightly lidded jar in a dark cupboard.
You can also make a tincture with the fresh herb so you will have a stock of plant medicine available throughout the year.
To do this, simply fill a glass jar with fresh plantain leaves and top it with 30-40% alcohol. Cover the jar tightly and place it in a dark location for 4 to 6 weeks, shaking it daily to agitate the mixture. Strain and transfer to a dropper bottle.
You could also try making an infused oil or salve with the fresh leaves. This is a wonderful way to store this herb for topical use anytime you need it.
Start by filling a glass jar with fresh leaves and top with a carrier oil.
Olive oil is my preference, as it has a long shelf life and is more affordable than some other types of oil, but jojoba, coconut, almond, or avocado oil are also great choices.
Let the herb sit in the oil for about 4-6 weeks, shaking the jar daily. You can keep it in the sun for the first few days, then transfer it to a dark cupboard for the remainder of the time.
Once the oil is ready, you can strain it and use it as is, or combine it with beeswax to make a healing salve.
To make a plantain salve, prepare a double boiler and fill it with one part herbal infused oil and one part beeswax. Stir over low heat until melted.
Next, pour the liquid into tins or small glass jars and leave them on the counter to set. The salve will harden at room temperature.
For a wonderfully soothing salve, try adding additional herbs such as calendula, yarrow, comfrey, and jewelweed. You can also add a few drops of lavender or peppermint essential oil for a final, therapeutic and aromatic touch.
The leaves of this plant are edible and nutritious, with a slight bitterness and a generally mild flavor. They’re rich in calcium, as well as vitamins A, C, and K.
You can eat the young leaves raw in salads, or blend them into juices or smoothies.
They can be cooked in stir fries and stews, adding a flavor and texture similar to spinach. Dried leaves can be crumbled and added to soups or cold blended beverages.
Fresh or dried leaves can also be brewed as a tea. To make an infusion, add 1-2 teaspoons of the dried herb to a cup of water, or about double that quantity if the herb is used fresh.
The seeds can also be soaked in room temperature water to make a cold infusion.
Quick Reference Growing Guide
|Plant Type:||Herbaceous perennial, medicinal herb||Water Needs:||Low|
|Native to:||Europe, Asia, North America||Maintenance:||Low|
|Hardiness (USDA Zone):||3-9||Soil Type:||All|
|Exposure:||Full sun to partial shade||Soil Drainage:||All|
|Time to Maturity:||90-120 days||Tolerance:||Poor soil, compacted soil|
|Spacing:||1 foot||Attracts:||Flowers occasionally attract bees, Syrphid flies|
|Planting Depth:||1/16 inch||Family:||Plantaginaceae|
|Height:||P. major, P. rugelii: 6 inches; P. lanceolata: 2 feet||Genus:||Plantago|
|Spread:||4-6 inches||Species:||lanceolata, major, rugelii|
|Common Pests:||Aphids, buckeye caterpillars, katydids (Conocephalus brevipennis), leaf-miner fly larvae (Phytomyza plantaginis), flea beetles, weevils (Mecinus pascuorum, M. pyraster)||Common Disease:||Powdery mildew|
One Person’s Weed Is Another Person’s Treasure
Some may look at plantain as a weed. But like so many throughout history, I see this as an herb that offers many benefits, and one of the most convenient to have on hand.
Next time you get cut or bitten while gardening, just throw some mashed up plantain on your wound, and see for yourself how handy it can be!
Do you have experience growing or using plantain? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
If you are looking for more medicinal plants to add to your garden, you’ll need these guides next:
© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via Outsidepride and Viablekitchen Seeds. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock. With additional writing and editing by Allison Sidhu.
The staff at Gardener’s Path are not medical professionals and this article should not be construed as medical advice intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Gardener’s Path and Ask the Experts, LLC assume no liability for the use or misuse of the material presented above. Always consult with a medical professional before changing your diet or using plant-based remedies or supplements for health and wellness.
Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)
Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) is a common plant in the UK. It is a broad-leaved weed and a true perennial herb. It is distinctive in shape and can grow on all but the most acid grasslands all over the UK. Ribwort plantain is a common roadside and hedgerow plant.
Plantago lanceolata has many common names. These include English plantain, narrowleaf plantain, ribgrass, ribleaf, ribwort and black plantain.
It is a distinctive plant, and very easy to spot. The long, leathery, ribbed leaves are easy to spot in any lawn.
It is a native plant to the UK, Europe and Asia and has spread to Australia and the Americas.
The Latin name for it originates from the word Planta, meaning sole of the foot. i.e. spread out and low growing. Lanceolata translates to lance or javelin, in reference to the shape of the leaves.
Greater plantain is a perennial plant from the Plantaginaceae family. This is is a diverse, cosmopolitan family of small herbs and shrubs. Ribwort plantain is a relation to the distinctive greater plantain. It is similar in growth to hoary plantain, but this has much hairier leaves. It it is also distantly related to slender speedwell.
Ribwort plantain on your lawn
Ribwort plantain is a true perennial and grows all year round if conditions allow. The only environments in which it struggles to grow are acidic or waterlogged soils. It is fully hardy and tolerates foot traffic well. So much so that it can be often seen growing in the middle of footpaths.
The weed is very easy to spot on your lawn. It is a round plant. Ribwort plantain can grow over 30cm in diameter, but is often not more than 20cm. It has a rosette of leaves which are long and lance-shaped (lanceolate).
Ribwort plantain leaf.
The leaves are dark green and leathery. They also have conspicuous ribs running along the length of the leaf. The leaves hug the ground if there is no competition, but can become quite erect if it is in a crowded site. There is no true stem on the plant. All leaves and flowers spikes come from one growing node in the centre.
The leafless, wiry flower spikes can grow up to 50cm from the base of the plant. This strong stem is square-shaped, which is very unusual in nature. The flowers at the top of this stem cluster in an oval shape (an
inflorescence). These are black or dark brown and produce white stamens. It is an usual flower and it is common to see hundreds of them swaying in the breeze in the summer.
It has a varied root system which can run quite deep into the soil. This helps it tolerate droughts much better than many other lawn weeds.
Ribwort plantain flower spikes are easy to spot
Ribwort plantain flowers from April all the way through to the first frosts. This can be well into November in some parts of the UK.
The flowers are wind pollinated and capable of self-fertilisation. Each plant can produce up to 10,000 seeds, although usually no more that a few thousand. One plant can produce many offspring and the seeds stay viable in the soil for a long time.
The seeds are sticky and stick to animals and machinery as a way of moving the species around. Seeds can also survive grazing. Passing through animals ready to germinate on the other side. Worms are also known to eat the seeds, which then settle in worm casts.
A single Ribwort plantain plant can live for up to 12 years, but usually they only live for two or three. They can also reproduce nearby via a thick rhizome, which can look like the same plant year after year.
Facts, folklore, cooking and medicine
Ribwort plantain is a pioneer crop used by sheep farmers in wales. The plants can establish themselves in difficult growing conditions. Even in locations such as bare rock. Sheep can then graze the plants and a thin soil can form, bringing in other species.
As it is a herb you can eat Ribwort plantain. The leaves are very bitter but the flower head tastes like mushrooms!
Ribwort plantain is claimed to have some medicinal benefits. Used in a herbal tea as a cough medicine and can treat skin infections, stings and insect bites.
For generations it is fashioned as a makeshift “pop gun” by school children. Loop the strong flower stems and fold them back over and you can “fire” the flowers some distance. Good fun!
Control of Ribwort plantain in a lawn
It is quite easy to manually pick out individual plants from a lawn. The roots are quite strong and tend to come out in one go.
Ribwort plantains are not considered a problem lawn weed. They are quite easy to hand weed out of a lawn. The roots are quite strong and do tend to come out in one go. Use a knife or a trowel to ease them out of the soil.
If there are a large number of plants it is easier to use a selective herbicide to control them. Mow off the flower stalks before spraying and apply a suitable selective herbicide on a dry day. Ribwort plantains have a large leaf area so they take in the chemical easily. Like other plantains, they rarely need a second treatment and re-growth will be small.
If you have a problem with Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) on your lawn, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Further reading and sources
More photos of Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)
Plantago lanceolata flowers taken by Norio Nomura in Japan. [CC 2.0] A mature Plantago lanceolata plant photographed by Harry Rose on Flickr. [CC 2.0] A young Plantago lanceolata plant photographed on Maui, Hawaii by Forest and Kim Starr on Flickr. [CC 2.0]