Two plants having the exact same name is pretty much a recipe for confusion no matter how you look at it. If you’re wondering why it matters- well, one of these plantains makes a very lovely salve and is frequently used in a wide range of concoctions by many herbalists. The other is a starchy fruit that looks like a banana. Note the emphasis on looks.
Not the best salve ingredient, that.
At a Glance
Don’t want to read through the whole article? Here’s a quick and handy chart:
Alright, now let’s go into detail!
There are two types of plantains that are commonly used in herbal preparations.
Plantago major, or broadleaf plantain, and Plantago lanceolata, or ribwort plantain.
These two plantain varieties are considered interchangeable, and can be substituted for each other depending on what you have available.
Plantain fruits are in the Musaceae family. Plantains can refer to any number of ‘cooking bananas’ in addition to true plantain cultivars.
The part of the herbal plantain used most frequently is the leaves (the entire plant is, however, considered edible). Broadleaf plantain has rather egg-shaped, smooth, thick-stemmed leaves that grow low to the ground.
The younger leaves are more tender than the older ones, and all of the leaves have strings throughout them, located in the deep ridged veins. These can be easily spotted from both sides of the leaf. Kind of like a celery stalk, but they don’t taste like celery. Just leaf taste.
Ribwort plantain has long, slender leaves, and has the same celery-like strings present throughout the deep leaf veins.
Plantains look like a banana. Both inside and out, actually:
However, they do not taste like a banana. They have a unique taste that’s entirely their own, and a texture rather reminiscent of a potato. They’re rather starchy overall. They range in color as they ripen, from green to yellow to black, and get sweeter as they ripen in that same order.
Use it in your herbal concoctions!
This herb is used in teas, as a poultice, and in salves, among other uses. If the author may be so bold as to give a recommendation, The Nerdy Farm Wife’s 10 Things to Make With Plantain is an excellent resource for those wanting to know more about making herbal creations with plantain.
Very young plantain leaves are also sometimes eaten raw, or blanched and boiled till tender. The old leaves are bitter. Some people eat the seeds of plantain plants as well, raw or cooked. Never eat a foraged plant unless you’re absolutely certain what it is, and when it comes to ones with medicinal properties, such as plantain, that you know exactly what it will do to you to eat it.
There’s hundreds upon hundreds of recipes that use plantains up on the internet. Plantains can be baked, fried, grilled… the list goes on. If you’re curious about eating plantains, do a quick search and experiment!
These plantains can also be made into flour! Peel, slice to discs, and dry completely all the way through in a dehydrator. Once the slices of plantain are absolutely dry, they can be ground down to a flour in a coffee grinder or food processor, and the flour used in baking. There’s more than a few recipes floating about on the internet that use plantain flour, so if you like plantains, it might be worth your time to go on a recipe hunt!
Plantains (fruit) and plantains (herb) are pretty different, and I still hold a grudge against whoever thought it would be a good idea to have both of these plants named the same thing.
Anyway, the TL;DR here is that if it looks like a banana, don’t put it in your salve, and if it’s a leaf, you can eat it if you really want to, but it’ll probably be better off floating in a jar of oil for a few months before getting turned into a salve or a balm or what-have-you.