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Spring 2011

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

May 31, 2011

Narrowleaf plantain

Produce from pavement

Of the plants able to thrive in a sun-baked sidewalk crack, few are more successful than a perennial herb that arrived with early European colonists.

In the spring, narrowleaf plantain, or ribwort, sends up a long, thin stalk topped with a small pineapple-shaped flower head. A ring of tiny white anthers, which appear to orbit the head, release a pollen that can trigger allergies this time of year.

The plant can mitigate its weedy, sneezy nature, however, by offering some oft-forgotten qualities:

The crushed leaves produce an astringent, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory juice that some people apply to cuts, insect bites and stings. A bruised leaf smeared onto a mosquito bite will stop the itch.

Leaves can be eaten like other dark greens, once they're stir-fried or boiled. Young leaves are preferred, but older leaves can be used after their tough, parallel veins are removed. The leaves are chockablock with antioxidants, rivaling those found in blueberries.

Anyone harvesting plantain for its benefits should seek out plants growing in sunny, pesticide-free lawns. And avoid the sidewalk plants, which sometimes get a squirt from neighborhood dogs.

Sources: Journal of Food Science; Allergy; Australian Naturopathic Network

Narrowleaf Plantain, Plantago lanceolata