Foraging Guide: Broadleaf Plantain

A common weed, plantain is a fantastically versatile plant. The leaves can be eaten, used to make a health-giving tea or applied to the skin to soothe itchy bites and stings.

5th June 2024 | Words by Dave Hamilton

When most of us hear the word ‘plantain’, we think of the starchy bananas served up in many a Caribbean restaurant. But plantain also refers to a common grassland plant that you are likely to have seen in the school playing field or growing through your garden lawn.

The scientific name for this prevalent perennial is Plantago major. This derives not from the word for plant, as you might expect, but from the Latin word ‘Planta’, meaning the sole of the foot. The name may be in part because it is found on land compacted by footfall. Native Americans called it ‘White Man’s Footprint’, as it followed the path of European settlers. The seed was not only carried on the shoes of the colonists but the compacted land of the wagon trains moving west also created the perfect conditions for the plant to thrive.



Plantain is easy to identify and has few lookalikes. The most notable features are its prominent veins, which often stay intact even when the leaf is torn in two. These give the plant its playground name of the ‘guitar string plant’. The leaves grow in a rosette form, meaning they spread out from a central point. The stem of the leaf is tough and normally about half the length of the leaf. Leaves are oval shaped and range between 4-20cm in size. As a perennial plant it can be found throughout the year even when the temperature has plummeted below zero. Rather than a flowerhead, like a daisy or sunflower, greater plantain has a flowering spike covered in lots of tiny flower heads. These are wind pollinated and give rise to numerous seeds. A very similar species, Plantago lanceolata or ribwort plantain, also has ribbed leaves but these are more spear shaped rather than rounded. The flower head differs too, as it has an ovoid head, which again is made up of many smaller flowers. Many adults recognise the plant as they would have twisted the stem around the seed head to ‘torpedo’ it off in a childhood playground game.


Where to find it

Plantain is a grassland weed, so look for it on grass verges, in fields, meadows and in parks and gardens. Because it thrives so well on disturbed, compressed soil, you’ll often find it close to footpaths, especially where people have diverted from the main path onto soil. For the same reason it is also commonly found next to farm gates, where cows have flattened the soil whilst queuing to get out of their field for milking. Ribwort plantain is more commonly found in longer grass. Both plants are almost entirely absent from acidic soils.

Plantains contain a natural antihistamine and can be used as a remedy for nettle stings and insect bites. They are far more effective than dock leaves, which despite what we were told as children, only really acts as a placebo. Plantain can be applied to an affected area of skin in one of two ways. It can be chewed and placed onto the skin as a poultice. Alternatively, vigorously rub a small handful of leaves between your hands until you start to hear a squelching sound. You should soon have a small amount of dark green liquid on your hands. This is a good remedy for nettle stings that can be applied to the affected area.


Plantain tea

Numerous studies dating from the 1930s right up to the present day have found plantain to be an effective remedy for all kinds of illnesses and ailments. Aside from being anti-inflammatory, it has been shown to alleviate the symptoms of flu and bronchitis, fight fatigue and act as both an anti-diarrheal and anti-diabetic medicine.

As such, brewing up plantain tea may act as an effective remedy prior to seeking medical help, whilst in the wild. This tea can be drunk up to three times a day. You can have it straight or prepare it with wild herbs such as thyme or mint.


  • 1 tablespoon of plantain leaves
  • 1 teaspoon of thyme and/or mint
  • Drizzle of honey and squeeze of lemon juice (optional)


    1. Roughly chop the plantain leaves and wild herbs. 
    2. Place in a teapot or cup. 
    3. Pour over boiling water and leave to steep for 5-6 minutes. 
    4. Add honey and lemon to taste.


Other uses

Although young ribwort plantain leaves can be used sparingly in a salad, most leaves are bitter and therefore taste far better cooked. They are best treated like mature (rather than baby leaf) spinach. Blanch the leaves in boiling water before adding to sweated onions and garlic, then cook with a splash of water. Salt is one of the best ways to combat the bitter taste, so add soy sauce, tamari or just a pinch of table salt. Alternatively toss the leaves in honey or balsamic vinegar.

Plantain tea

Plantain Crisps


  • Two handfuls of roughly chopped plantain leaves
  • A dash of oil
  • Generous dash of soy sauce or tamari


    1. Preheat your oven to 180°C or set your air fryer to 200°C.
    2. Place all the ingredients on a baking tray or into the tray of the air fryer.
    3. Cook for 5-10 minutes or until the plantain has darkened (but not blackened) and become crispy.
    4. Serve as a side or sprinkle onto Chinese food in place of crispy seaweed.

Plantain chips

Dave Hamilton is the author of Where the Wild Things Grow: the Foragers Guide to the Landscape, published by Hodder and Stoughton. He has led the Guardian Masterclass in foraging and currently works as an instructor for Britain’s leading foraging course company, Wild Food UK.

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