Some may view this humble plant as “just a weed”, but once you learn about the wide range of benefits and uses of broadleaf plantain, you'll never want to be without it. From nutritious leafy greens to soothing healer inside and out, this wild plant is a blessing is disguise. In this post, we'll share how to identify plantain herb, broadleaf plantain benefits and how to manage it in the yard and garden.
How to Identify Plantain Herb
Broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) is one of thirty-four Plantago species around the globe – all of them edible and medicinal.
Where Broadleaf Plantain Grows
Broadleaf plantain is native to Europe and temperate parts of Asia. It (and other plantain species) have spread to most of the world, except the arctic regions. They grow throughout most of the United States and North America.
Plantain grows just about anywhere – from cracks in sidewalks, to roadsides and meadows, to garden beds and lawns. (We have some suggestions for plantain control near the end of the post.)
What Plantain Herb Looks Like
Broadleaf plantain is a perennial, coming back year after year from the roots. Leaves grow in a rosette, close to the ground. Plantain leaves are 1-6 inches in length, broadly lance shaped to egg shaped, and are hairless or sparsely short haired.
Each leaf has prominent parallel veins, like celery. If you break a leaf in half, it has strings.
The flowers shoot up from the center of the basal rosettes in spikes 3-12 inches tall. They're rather dull colored, changing from green to brown as the seeds mature.
The small brown seed pods each contain 4-20 seeds. When they mature, pods split open and spill the seeds to the ground. Plantain seeds can last at least 60 years in the soil, so if you've had plantain show up in your garden once, chances are you'll see it again, even if you don't let new plants go to seed.
Buckhorn plantain (Plantago lanceolata) is another common plantain species. It's also called ribwort or narrow leaf plantain. As the name suggests, this plantain has longer, narrower, lance shaped leaves. It also forms a rosette of leaves with veins from the base to tip.
Broadleaf Plantain Benefits
Broadleaf plantain is edible for both animals and people, and has a wide range of medicinal uses.
Nutrient Dense Food
The entire broadleaf plantain plant is edible from root to seed. Nutrients include vitamin A, as well as vitamins C and K, zinc, potassium, and silica. Plantain seeds are rich in proteins, carbohydrates and omega 3 fatty acids.
Young plantain leaves can be eaten raw. They make flavorful salad greens, pairing well with other milder greens or fruits like diced apple. As the plant gets older, the leaves get tougher, and are better cooked. Chop them (remember the strings) and use them as you would spinach or other sturdy greens.
Plantain roots are small compared to many wild plant roots, but they can be cooked and blended into soups and vegetable dishes.
The seeds of Plantago major are related to Plantago ovata, or psyllium seeds. (These are used in popular fiber supplements.) Their seed coat contains up to 30% mucilage, giving it a gelatinous quality when wet. You can grind up plantain seeds in their husks to use as thickening in recipes, or as part of a hot porridge mix.
Wildlife Eats Plantain, Too!
Cardinals, sparrows and other small birds munch on plantain seeds. Many herbivores such as groundhogs, rabbits, deer, cattle, sheep and other mammals eat the leaves and flowering stalks. Caterpillars of buckeye butterflies and several moths eat the leaves. (Source)
Plantain Herb as Medicine
Broadleaf plantain is nothing short of AMAZING for bug bites, stings and other skin irritations. I use fresh plantain leaf directly on insect bites, or plantain infused oil or salve. The itch of mosquitoes bites and burn of wasp stings fades in minutes with an application of plantain herb.
Plantain salve made from infused oil is great for spot treatments and hemorrhoids. I dry some plantain for tea, too, but most frequently I use it fresh or in salve.
Plantain is also good for drawing out slivers. Simply place some fresh, smashed plantain or plantain salve on the sliver spot, cover with a bandage, and leave overnight. The next morning you should be able to gently squeeze out the sliver or pluck it from the wound.
Plantain is also used medicinally to:
- inhibit bacteria growth
- counteract poisoning
- relieve pain and inflammation
- clear obstructions in the gut and airways
- increase the flow of urine
- reduce fever
- stop bleeding
- improve eye drainage
- treat or heal wounds
The article Grandma Called it Medicine Leaf has more information on the medicinal uses of plantain, including some simple recipes.
Other plantain articles on the site:
Plantain in Folklore
Some historical references, gathered from various locations:
Legend has it that Plantain was a young girl who longed for her lover's return and spent so much time watching and waiting for him by the roadside that she eventually transformed into this common roadside plant.
Plantain was one of the nine sacred herbs of the ancient Saxons and was an early Christian symbol of the path followed by the multitudes of the devout.
It derives one of its common names, White Man's Foot, from Native American folklore, as the plant seemed to follow the path of the white settlers everywhere they went. Longfellow made mention of this in the classic Hiawatha
Many cultures have reference to Plantain as an aphrodisiac.
A Dr. Robinson of the New Family Herbal of days past, says that the Assembly of South Carolina presented an Indian a “great reward” for his discovery that the Plantain was the ‘chief remedy' for the cure of the rattlesnake bite.
Folklore tells us to place Plantain beneath the feet to ease tiredness, or carry it in the pocket to protect from snakebite. One source says to bind Plantain to the head with a red wool sash to cure headaches.
Plantain Weed Control
If you have plantain weed taking over your lawn or garden, your soil is trying to give you a message – it's too compacted.
Plantain weed thrives in high traffic areas like foot paths or where vehicles drive over the lawn. It also has no problem with slightly soggy soil. The area under our rain barrel spigots was taken over by broadleaf plantain this year.
Since the seeds hang out patiently in the soil for decades, the best way to control plantain long term is to reduce soil compaction.
- Aerate the soil.
- Add organic matter, such as compost.
- Improve drainage, if needed.
- Stop driving on the lawn.
Dig individual plants if you like. (The roots are small so they are easy to pull.) Yes, broadleaf weed killers knock out plantain, too, but those chemicals are poison, so I don't want them in my yard.
What's in a Name?
Other names for broadleaf plantain include common plantain, plantain, dooryard plantain, Ripple Grass, Waybread, Slan-lus, Waybroad, Snakeweed, Cuckoo's Bread, soldier's herb, soldier's woundwort, indian wheat, Englishman's Foot and white man's foot.
Broadleaf plantain is the wild plant that I use most. I make up enough salve to share with family and friends because it works so well for skin irritations. I wouldn't be without it. Grandma Catherine was right – it is a medicine leaf.
The Weekly Weeder Series
This article is #14 in the Weekly Weeder Series, a collection of posts I wrote some years ago about using wild plants for food and medicine. You can find the whole series on the Herbs and Wildcrafting page.
Other popular posts in the series include:
- Marvelous Milkweed – Answers to 21 Common Questions About this Useful Plant
- Stinging Nettle – One of Most Useful Wild Plants
- Catnip – Uses for People and Cats
Do you have a use for plantain that I missed, or a request for information on another wild plant? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts. If you'd be interested in a video course about the weeds we cover, let me know that, too.
Originally posted in 2011, updated in 2019.