Edible weeds are gaining in popularity. More and more people are recognizing the value of plants we used to disregard as a nuisance, which is why many people are growing plantain.
Plantain is known all over the world for its medicinal and culinary uses. Even though it’s often discarded as a weed, it can be a wonderful addition to your garden.
Interested in finding out more about the plantain herb? Then, keep reading and discover how to grow it at home.
Get To Know Plantain Herbs
First, don’t confuse the herbaceous plantain with the banana-like fruit. They share a name but little else.
Most Plantago species grow natively in Europe, but they’re adaptable and can thrive in a wide range of conditions. Out of the 200 species that exist, the most common species in North America are broadleaf plantain or English (P. major) and narrow leaf plantain (P. lanceolata).
Rugel’s plantain (P. rugelii) is another common plantain and it’s native to North America. It looks similar to broadleaf plantain.
This plant is perennial and has a distinctive look with low-growing, lance-like, or egg-shaped leaves with defined veins. But, how can you identify this plant among a field of weeds?
Broadleaf (also known as common) plantain has oval or egg-shaped leaves with five-nine veins and a long petiole. This species produces small clusters of brown or green flowers. The leaves grow to 6-12 inches and the flower spikes are up to 18 inches long.
In comparison, the narrow leaf plantain has more narrow, lanceolate leaves that are thick and up to 16 inches long with three-five veins. The flowers are similar in color to common plantain and grow up to 24 inches tall.
The leaves always come up from a basal rosette. They don’t grow on stems.
There are very few lookalikes, so don’t panic that you’ll accidentally forage the wrong plant. Just look at lots of pictures and compare what you find to your research.
No matter the species, most plantains will grow in rocky, sandy, dry, or compacted soil. That makes them an important plant for restoring disturbed areas. They’ve been used as medicinal herbs for centuries, particularly as a topical remedy for wounds or stings.
Planting Plantain Seeds
It’s difficult to find plantain seedlings, plus it’s easy to grow by seed, so planting by seeds is the easiest route. Or you can dig up and transplant a wild plant.
Sow your plantain seeds directly into the ground in the spring. As the seeds are small, you can just disperse them evenly over the soil and add a thin layer of soil over them.
Plantain seeds can grow in many soil conditions, so anything from sandy to rocky soil is suitable for this plant. But it helps to prep the soil by working in a little well-rotted compost. This plant is suitable for USDA Growing Zones 3-12.
Place the seeds somewhere they’ll receive full sun or partial shade.
If you’re worried about the germination rates and want to provide your seeds with a head start, then you can cold stratify the seeds.
Seed stratification is the process used to break down seed dormancy and promote better germination. Think of it this way: it mimics the cold weather most plants naturally experience in North America and Europe during the winter.
To do this, place the seeds in your refrigerator in moist (not wet) sand for a few weeks. After about a month, sow them into the ground as described above.
Keep the soil moist until they sprout and have a few leaves.
Alternatively, you can grow this plant by digging up and transplanting wild plants. The good news is, that the plantain plant is easy to transplant as it has shallow roots (plus a strong taproot), unlike many “weeds,” which just have long taproots.
Just remember to be cautious during the transplanting process and keep the roots protected. Plant them in the ground to the same depth as where you found them, water, and wait for the magic to happen!
The only caution is that you want to be sure you know what you’re digging up and planting. If you aren’t certain, ask an expert. Luckily, there are only a few plantain lookalikes, and none of them are poisonous.
For instance, hosta is sometimes compared to plantain (it’s even called plantain lily), but even hostas are edible.
Caring for Plantain
Although plantain plants are easy to grow, you should keep the following tips in mind if you decide to try growing this plant in your garden.
The seeds need to stay moist until the seedlings have a few leaves. After that, Mother Nature can take care of the watering for you. The same applies to feeding plantain. No need, and in reality, too much food will harm its growth.
Because plantain can spread unchecked, you might not want to just set it loose in your garden. Consider planting in containers or raised beds to help control the spread.
Don’t allow the plants to form seedheads in the late summer to prevent them from self-sowing all over your garden (assuming you don’t plan to use them). Just snip the seedheads off as they form.
Common Pests and Diseases
Not only are pests something to think about when growing plantain plants, but diseases are possible, as well. Being a fairly weedy plant, pests and diseases are rarely an issue, but that doesn’t mean they never happen.
The only disease that is serious for this plant is powdery mildew. It’s common on plants that are in too much shade or overwatered. To learn how to identify and stop powdery mildew, head to our guide.
The most common insects to infect your plantain plants are aphids, buckeye caterpillars, and flea beetles. None of these pests are too hard to handle, so you’ll be happy to hear that you can save your plants if they appear in your garden.
You can easily pick off the caterpillars from the leaves if your spot them moving. Removing them from the plants will prevent them from laying their larvae and creating more damage.
Harvesting Plantain Plants
Plantain leaves can be harvested throughout their growing stages, but the best part to gather for raw eating is the fresh inner leaves. The outer leaves are thicker and less palatable.
The seeds should be harvested when the heads are fully grown, and they have changed to a brown color. Make sure they’re ready to harvest by hitting the stem against your hand. If seeds fall, you can harvest!
To harvest the seeds, run your fingers along the stalk and push the seeds off into a bag, or another container. The next step is to put the seeds in a strainer and remove the husks. Ideally, you should harvest in the fall as this is when the plant’s energy faces downwards.
There are many uses for this plant once you harvest it from the garden.
The young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. Older leaves are best cooked. The roots can also be eaten cooked.
The seeds have a mucilaginous quality and they’re often used as a psyllium fiber (think Metamucil).
Traditionally, plantain herbs can be used to make a tea that is packed with health benefits. Proponents say that a cup of plantain tea can treat coughs, nausea, heartburn, diarrhea, and constipation. It’s also used for controlling blood sugar and cholesterol.
Externally, the leaves can be used as an anti-inflammatory to treat bites, cuts, and skin irritation. Crush the stems into a paste and wrap the paste around the infected area. You can leave the poultice for ten minutes or overnight if the wound requires more care.
Plantain is also useful as a dye, which you can learn more about in our guide.
To harvest, snip the leaves as you want to use throughout the year. Or you can harvest the entire plant all at one time. Use a hori hori knife to dig up the roots and leaves.
If you want to try harvesting wild plantain plants, here are some useful tips:
- Ensure the leaves are free from herbicides and avoid discolored plants
- Bring a pair of scissors with you and an empty bag for harvesting
Preserving Plantain Plants
Of course, if you can use your plantain leaves as soon as you harvest you’ll have a better flavor. However, you can always preserve your harvest for future use. For preserving plantain plants, you can dry them at 95°F until they begin crumbling.
Another great way to dry the plantain leaves is hanging them upside down in bundles with a piece of string tied around them. This will add a lovely touch to your kitchen design and you can make a fresh tea whenever you feel like it!