Introducing the Plantains - multi-yielding plants for a permaculture system

Christopher Hope
Thursday, 30th May 2013

Looking for a plant that offer us foods, medicines and attract wildlife, while happily growing anywhere? Look no further than the Plantains.

The plantains (Plantago lanceolata / P.major from Plantaginaceae family) are some of Britain's most common and valuable wild plants. When looking for plants that provide multi-yields in our permaculture systems, we need to take note of species that offer us foods, medicines and attract wildlife, while happily growing anywhere! The plantains have many virtues that are generally overlooked, including mushroom flavours for inventive culinary use, as well as their usefulness as medicines, successfully treating a wide number of ailments, internally and externally.

Rats tail / greater plantain

We concentrate here on the two plantains that are found almost everywhere in Britain. Ribwort (aka narrow-leaved plantain) and rats-tail (aka greater plantain) are both extremely common in town and country, all over the planet, as another common name of P.major - 'white man's footstep' - alludes to. They can be found up to altitudes of 840 metres, enjoying maritime exposure, and easily establishing themselves in a wide range of conditions.

Where it can, Ribwort will grow upright like this

Both plantains are low-growing plants; ribwort with lanceolate leaves, approximately 15-25 cm long, whereas rats-tail has much wider, broadly oval leaves, with a noticeably wider and longer petiole. Both species have raised parallel veins on the undersides of their distinctive leaves, which always form basal rosettes before and during flowering. These are very adaptable species, adjusting habit to changeable environmental factors. They will grow upright in tall vegetation, but prostrate under grazing or mowing pressure. Both plantains easily spread through vegetative means - ribwort especially so - and will often appear in dense patches.

The plantains produce their flowers on terminal spikes that can reach 45 cm in length. These can be found from April to August, with the seeds ripening from June. Their hermaphrodite flowers are pollinated by wind, flies, and beetles. Ribwort's flowering stem will often be deeply furrowed and typically covered in fine silky hairs. Rat's-tail's inflorescence is larger than ribwort's, occupying a greater ratio of the whole stem. Ribwort's smaller heads produce rings of creamy yellow anthers, whereas rats-tail generates little purple stamens on a much longer head. The seeds are brown when ripe and contain a water retaining 'gel' made from mucilage, enabling them to germinate and grow in dry soils when other species simply cannot.

Ribwort has been acknowledged as one of the most constant and widespread components of natural and semi-natural grassland in Britain. It is found in all but the most acid soils, appearing in different meadow communities, grazed pastures, lawns, as well as on sea cliffs, sand dunes, and all manner of waste-ground. You won't see rat's tail in meadows as regularly as ribwort however. Rat's-tail likes the more compacted ground found on road verges and path edges, and will be found in well mown grassland and parks.

Parts used: Leaves, flower buds, seeds

Harvest Leaves: Spring is best, but any new ones are OK.

Flower buds (ribwort): From April. Seeds (ribwort): From July.

Uses: Ribwort and rats tail plantain leaves are ancient medicines with many virtues, used throughout the world. Either plant can be used to combat a number of respiratory ailments, such as bronchitis, nasal catarrh and sinusitis; as well as middle ear complaints. Both plants have been used to treat bladder infections for centuries.

The plantains are outstanding wound herbs. If you cut yourself when out foraging, gardening or whatever, then treat yourself, for this plant will very likely be near-by. Simply gather and chew a couple of good looking leaves, then apply the 'spit poultice' to the afflicted area. Bleeding stops very quickly, and broken flesh is rapidly sealed together, due to the astringency of tannins, and the soothing mucilage. Plantains are mildly anti-septic, so they also help prevent infection. In addition, these plants are really useful against insect bites and stings, especially for children. Once again, chew or scrunch up the leaves until you get the juices flowing, then apply.

During a forage walk in Oxford, I met a Korean gentleman who reminisced about eating rats-tail plantain leaves as a child at home. His family cooked it as you would spinach, but with spices, and said it was a commonly used vegetable in rural areas. The leaves taste somewhat mushroom-like, but they need cooking to make them palatable. Ribwort pre-flower buds are moist and crunchy, and also taste strongly of mushrooms. Both lend themselves well to being pureed and made into a dip. Plantain seeds can be gathered and added to meals, or ground into flour to make flat breads etc. The mature seeds of ribwort are lovely and nutty, and just big enough to be bothered about.

Happy foraging!

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More resources

Foraging for wild food and medicinal plants - Chickweed Plant Profile

Foraging for wild food and medicinal plants - Brassicas Plant Profile

Foraging for wild food and medicinal plants - Hedge Mustard Plant Profile

wildelycreative |
Thu, 30/05/2013 - 14:14
Plantain is also beneficial for relief from hayfever symptoms. Mark Boyle talks of it in The Moneyless Man. Plantain is so abundant and free it's a great use for an insufferable allergy.
Mark Boyle |
Fri, 31/05/2013 - 16:14
Yes plantain is the best remedy that I've tried for hayfever, really sorted mine out after 25 years of chronic hayfever. You can read about it here: