Even if the scientists and astronomers have yet to accept the arrival of spring I know that “spring has sprung.” If I had to I would be able to provide healthy meals for myself and my family. The early plants are sprouting and have since the first warm snap three weeks ago. When more than a dozen edible, medicinal, or usable plants are above ground it is officially spring.
I will be talking about plants as they pop up. This way everyone can look around for them as they are discussed. Remember if you are not 100% positive of a plant’s identity “DO NOT INGEST IT” “DO NOT EAT IT.” There are many excellent plant identification books available. Make use of your local library, your local agricultural extension and any park or nature reserve to help you identify wild plants.
Plantago Lanceolata (image from USDA Plant Database)
Plantago Major (image from USDA Plant Database)
One of the first plants to appear in the spring and occasionally during the winter if there are a few warm days. Plantains are very nutritious and easy to cook and store. The two most common varieties are Plantago lanceolata – Lance leaf or Indian Plantain, and Plantago major – Broad leaf or White Mans Foot. Plantago major was imported with fodder that the European’s brought to America. Seeds carried and dropped by birds allowed Plantains to move across the continent. Wide leaf Plantain arrived one or two years before the European settlers moved into an area.
The leaves can be eaten raw, blanched, or cooked like any green. They are high in Vitamin B1 and have about 2% protein by volume. They can be quite fibrous especially as they get older. Picking the leaves causes new growth which will be tender. The seeds can be dried or roasted and added to foods or ground into flour and added to other grains or used alone. They seeds are very tiny and can be tedious to gather. Placing paper or cloth around the plant allows the seed to be gathered more easily. Tea can be made from the dried leaves.
Note: A cultivar of Plantain, Plantago affra has high quantities of psyllium and will make great porridge type cereal, These seeds can also be used as a gentle laxative as they contain 30% or more mucilage by volume.
Lance Leaf Plantain (image from USDA Plant Database)
Lance Leaf Plantain is one of the first plants taught to children. It is not easily confused with any other plant especially once the seed stem appears. I call it Snakebite but it has other common names. Bite plant, Sting-stop and No itch which describe one of the many properties of this species. Children like being gross and to use Plantain as an anti-itch, anti-sting agent the leaf must be masticated. You pick a leaf, put it in you mouth, chew well then spit it into your hand and apply to the sting, bite or scrape. This action tickles children as they are not usually allowed to spit. Because plantain is edible there is no danger to anyone from the juice.
Plantain is antiseptic and is great to use as a poultice. It contains high concentrations of mucilage and tannins as well as silicic acid. These components allow plantain to be used as a highly effective styptic agent. Dry and powder leaves then dab onto a bleeding wound. Making an extract from the leaves will provide a mild anti-bacterial agent. Making a tincture from the leaves will also produce a mild antibacterial wash.
The leaves and seeds are helpful in the treatment of diarrhea and other gastric ailments. The properties allow the crushed seeds and leaves to swell and comfort to swollen intestines.
Making a sterile water solution with the seeds creates a gentle eye wash for irritated, puffy eyes. The mild nature of Plantain is helpful when added to other herbs for conditions like mild bladder infections, respiratory conditions, peptic ulcers, gastritis and sinus infections. A poultice of plantain and rose petals is great for painful and swollen hemorrhoids
Plantain can reduce fevers but works better when used with Feverfew, Willow or Catnip. Keep in mind that any remedy that tastes so bad that people will not swallow it will be useless. Using a pleasant tasting herb with a bitter one eliminates the need for sweeteners. Adding sweetener to herbal remedies is not a wise approach. Use dried berries, sweet leaves or mints to make remedies more palatable. Using plants with a high ascorbic acid content is also a good way to make remedies more palatable. Wood Sorrel, Sour Dock and Sheep’s Sorrel have very high concentrations of ascorbic acid giving things a lemony taste.