Buck’s Horn Plantain, as it is most commonly known in the English-speaking world, or Plantago coronopus, as it is known to the international scientific community, is by most accounts an unassuming little herb. However, it has a long history of use both for food and medicine. Insofar as it falls into the former category, it is particularly esteemed in continental Europe, where it has been cultivated and collected from the wild for use as a vegetable for centuries. Despite this fact, and despite the fact that it is easy to grow, tolerates a wide range of climatic and environmental conditions, and has long been known to respond well to cultivation (see, e.g., Miller 1754), it is still seldom grown here in the UK.
Having come to the attention of the gourmet food world, however, it has started to enjoy a small renaissance over the last few years, occasionally being used in high end restaurants or sold by fine food merchants. You can also find a small handful of articles, both online and in print, about its use for food, particularly in Mediterranean cuisine. Yet in the last 5 or 6 years that we have grown (and occasionally foraged) it, we’ve found it to be much more versatile than any of these sources convey. And that is why I’ve chosen to
focus on it here.
To begin with I’ll say a little bit more about the plant itself. Then I’ll give a short survey of its ethnobotany, that is, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, its historical and on-going use by different people and cultures. And finally I’ll go over the various culinary uses to which Buck’s Horn Plantain can be put in a bit more
detail, and pick up a couple of things which aren’t covered in the aforementioned survey.
Buck’s Horn Plantain is a relatively low-growing plant, with leaves which grow from the base to form a tight rosette (or occasionally ‘rosettes’ plural), as do those of most of its closest relatives. Next to most of these, however, its overall appearance is quite distinctive, as the leaves themselves are narrow and lobed (pinnately, or occasionally bipinnately). From above this gives it the appearance of a snowflake or a star, a fact that is reflected in the older name, ‘star of the earth’ (Withering, 1776), and in the Italian, ‘erba stella’ [star herb /
Although it comes from a family, the eponymous Plantain family (Plantaginaceae), which contains a number of highly ornamental species – e.g., Foxgloves (Digitalis ssp.), Snapdragons (Antirrhinum spp.), Speedwells (Veronica spp.) – its flowers are much more modest. Individually they are tiny, but grow in dense spikes on a leafless stems which also emerge from the base of the plant.
Beyond these more or less stable features, however, Plantago coronopus shows considerable genetic and morphological variation. I’ll dedicate another post to this, and to its potential for further domestication, selection and breeding. It’s also variable in terms of its life cycle, as unlike many species, which grow either as annuals (completing their life cycle in one year), as biennials (completing their life cycle in two years), or as perennials (living for three of more years), instances of all three are found both within and between populations of P. coronopus.
Its distribution is cosmopolitan, i.e., it’s found on multiple continents. In fact, it has been recorded on every continent apart from Antarctica (Parker, 2012), although it is only native to Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa. And it is also something of a botanical curiosity, firstly, because it is heterocarpic (i.e., it produces two different kinds of seed, each with distinctive physical characteristics), and secondly, because of its complex reproductive system, as that ties in with the breeding side of things, I’ll cover that in a later post too.
The genus to which Buck’s Horn Plantain belongs, Plantago, contains about 240 species (van Der Aart & Vulto, 1992a, p.4), and several of these have also been, and continue to be used for food and medicine. Two of the most commonly wild collected species are the Common or Greater Plantain (P. major) and the Ribwort Plantain (P. lanceolata). Both make a passable leafy vegetable, and share some uses with Buck’s Horn. Another group of Plantains (including, P. ovata, P. indica, and P. afra), known collectively as ‘Psylliums’, are grown commercially for their seeds and the paper husks which surround these.
However, while Buck’s Horn Plantain is not the most widely used species in the genus, in his recently republished Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, internationally acclaimed food historian William Woys Weaver writes,‘[o]f all the plantains, it is the most delectable, and the most beautiful’ [2018, p.357]. High praise indeed, but is it justified? Apart from the aforementioned ‘Psylliums’, which aren’t generally listed by species name when they turn up in food products, I have only knowingly eaten five species, P. major (common), lanceolata (ribwort), media (hoary), maritima (sea), and coronopus (buck’s horn). Of these, Buck’s Horn is by far my favourite. But while I share Weaver’s enthusiasm, I’ll leave out the superlatives, and say simply, that it is both delectable and beautiful, albeit in an understated way.
Sturtevant notes that, like other Plantains (Plantago spp.), Buck’s Horn Plantain has a long history of use in the British Isles, and has been cultivated in England at least since 1686 (Hedrick, 1972: 507); although the source he cites, John Ray’s Historiae plantarum, doesn’t say whether it was cultivated for food or some other use. However, in his 1748 work, The Gardener’s Dictionary 3rd Edition, Vol. 1, the British botanist Philip Miller, tells us that it was ‘formerly cultivated in Gardens as a Sallad-Herb’, at the time of writing this he notes that it ‘is little regarded, and almost wholly disused’. And in the heavily reworked 8th edition, published in 1768, he adds that the reason it was, as he puts it ‘banished’ from our gardens, is on account of ‘its rank disagreeable flavour’. That doesn’t sound like the plant that I know and love!
For more favourable reviews, it seems that we have to turn to continental Europe,
but once we do so they are not hard to find. Starting with France, Buck’s Horn Plantain is the only member of its genus included in Description des plantes potagères and in the more well known Les Plantes Potagères: description et culture des principaux légumes des climates tempérés, published in Paris in 1856 and 1883 respectively, by the famous seed merchants, Vilmorin-Andrieux and Co. They even seem to have made an attempt to convince stubborn Brits of its culinary virtues in 1885, when it was included in the English reworking of the latter work, titled The Vegetable Garden, published under the direction of W. Robinson.
The Fifth Edition, of German botanist Johann Metzger’s Gartenbuch (revised and edited by Friedrich Jakob Dochnahl), published in Frankfurt in 1875, already refer to the ‘kultivirten Gartenvarietät’, i.e., the cultivated garden variety, of ‘Hirschhorn-Salat’, which was commonly used in salads. In fact, it is listed there as one of only 16 Salatpflanzen, alongside Chicory, Endive, Lettuce, Dandelion, Lamb’s Lettuce, Garden Cress, Watercress, Celery, Leaf Beet, Radish, and Cucumber.
In her Edible Salad Garden, Rosalind Creasy (see also her The Edible Italian Garden) notes that ‘for eons [Buck's Horn Plantain] has been gathered in the wild to be part of the Italian misticanza [sometimes spelt misticanze]’, where it is used along with aragula/salad rocket, lettuce, and chicories (1999, p.45). The Italians also use more mature leaves, boiled and seasoned with oil, salt and lemon juice, or fried, sometimes with eggs to make a frittata (Ranfa & Bodesmo, 2017, p.253). And in rural Tuscany, where it is known by the local names Tirafilo and Orecchie d’asino, the leaves are used in vegetable soups. (Wright, 2001: 74). It has also been used similarly further south in Sicily (Licata et al. 2016).
In Spain, the leaves, which are usually harvested in Spring, are used as a vegetable, typically stewed (Tardío et al. 2006). They are also gathered for food in southern Croatia, Herzegovinia, and elsewhere in the Balkans (Luczaj & Pieroni, 2016, p.41), and often sold in the markets of Dalmatia (Luczaj, et. al. 2013). The leaves are also eaten in parts of Turkey, where it is known by several names, the most common of which seem to be boğaotu and çığnak (which is sometimes restricted to the tetraploid subspecies P. coronopus subsp. commutata); the names çayotu and horozibiği are also apparently used regionally (Ertuğ, F., 2014).
Perhaps more unusually, as it is an introduced species there, it seems to have been quickly adopted by the indigenous peoples of Canada, who were already familiar with (and commonly used) several of its close relatives for food. Interestingly, they apparently used not only the leaves, but also the seeds (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991. p.311) – I’ll say a bit more about this use below.
It is no surprise that most sources detailing the use of P. coronopus mention the young leaves, which are excellent raw or lightly steamed. In her Zuni Cafe Cookbook,Judy Roger describes them as ‘vaguely succulent in texture... [with] a pleasant, mineraly taste, a little like raw spinach’ (136). That’s not a bad description – I certainly get the comparison to spinach, and they are on the cusp of being succulent. But beyond that, I suppose, it depends on which minerals you have in mind. Windrose Farm, which supply the San Diego based seller, Speciality Produce, say that it tastes ‘a little like parsley, spinach or kale, but briny & herbaceous’ – that description turns up elsewhere on the web too (e.g., UK based Chiltern Seeds). Based on the plants I’ve eaten, I think you’d have to really use your imagination to detect a Parsley-like flavour at any stage of growth. And I’ve only found there to be a noticeable ‘brininess’ when leaves are gathered from plants growing at coastal sites. Mature leaves, do develop a slight, but quite pleasant bitterness, that give them a hint of Black/Lacinato Kale. I’ve heard the term ‘nuttiness’ – sometimes coming from my own mouth – used to describe the taste, but like ‘herbaceous’ and ‘green’ (the latter, a term I also use too often), it’s one of those words you find yourself reaching for in an attempt to gestures at something that is very difficult to pin down.
Rogers, who I mentioned a moment ago, prefers to use them when they resemble ‘nothing more than tiny blades of freshly mown grass’ (137). Harvested in this way, as a kind of ‘micro-green’, they can be mixed into salads or used as a garnish. However, they remain tender for quite a while after that. And Creasy helpfully observes, that by cutting the young leaves an couple of centimetres above the crown, the ‘plant will regrow and be ready for another harvest in a few weeks.’ (1999: 45), so they can be used as a cut and come again salad.
For many people this seems to be where the use of Buck’s Horn Plantain ends. Even Weaver, who clearly holds this plant in high regards says that ‘[t]he leaves should always be gathered when very young, because they toughen as they mature’ (2018, 358). He is right of course; they do toughen as they mature, but so do those of Swiss Chard or Kale. And although the ‘baby leaves’ of both are delicious, we’d be missing a treat and letting a perfectly good vegetable go to waste if we discounted the older ones – they just need to be handled differently in the kitchen.
Raw, the older leaves vary quite a bit in terms of palatability; some are fine others less so. As a rule they are generally better before the plants flower, at which point some plants develop a more appreciable bitterness and/or become slightly more fibrous. They are, however, greatly improved by cooking. Boiled, for about 10 minutes, they are good with pasta. Sautéed in butter or margarine with some garlic, black pepper and lemon juice they are even better (but what green vegetable isn’t?). One thing I will say is that the first 2-3cm at the base of the leaves (at least, the larger ones) tends to be a bit tougher than the rest, so it is best removed.
While the best plants are smooth and hairless (glabrous), at maturity, some are a tad on the hairy side, either all-over (or nearly so) (hirsute or pubescent) or only around their margins (ciliate). Often this gives the leaves a kind of silkiness which completely disappears once cooked. However, there’s no getting around the fact that some plants verge upon being bristly, which is hardly ideal for an edible plant, and would once have put me off using it, particularly if it was true of the species in general. This is one of the traits I’m looking to eliminate from the plants I grow, but in the meantime, I found a workaround, namely, tempura, as the hairs help to hold the batter and are broken down by the cooking process.
I can also attest to the fact that the mature leaves of all shapes, sizes and degrees of hairiness, make an excellent soup. Below is a recipe I adapted from one included in Don Dolg’s Don’s Montana Kitchen.
1 large carrot finely chopped
1 large onion chopped
2 stick celery finely chopped
2 cups coarsely chopped Buck’s Horn Plantain
1 tbsp oil of your choice
1 tbsp soy sauce (or tamari to make it gluten free)
7 cups of water
¼ cup coconut milk + extra for serving (the kind you get in a tin)
½ tsp black pepper (extra to taste)
Salt (to taste)
Add a splash of oil to your pan, and fry the onions, carrots and celery over a low heat, à la mirepoix. Once they’ve softened, boil your water and pour over the vegetables. Add the soy sauce, black pepper and chopped Buck’s Horn Plantain and simmer for about 20 minutes.
If you let the coconut milk stand before opening, it should separate in the tin/carton, with the thicker, creamier stuff settling at the top. Carefully scoop some of this off, and put to one side. Then stir the remaining content, and add about ¼ cup to your cooking pot. You don’t want too much otherwise you won’t be able to taste the full flavour of the plantain.
Bring the pan back to the boil and simmer for another few minutes. Then let it cool a bit, blend and add salt and pepper to taste. Finally, I added some of the coconut milk that I held back earlier, and topped it off with some toasted pumpkin seeds, chilli flakes, and chives. And served it with some toasted sourdough. Delicious!
As well as being delicious, the leaves of Buck’s Horn Plantian score highly from a nutritional point of view - in an analysis they were found to be a good source of essential amino acids, and to be rich in Calcium (Ca – 14mg/g dw), Iron (Fe 0.41 mg/g dw) and Magnesium (Mg – 6.34 mg/g). The study can be accessed in full here. However, this isn’t where the culinary uses for this excellent little plant end.
Before the flowers are fully developed, the immature inflorescences can be nibbled raw, or lightly cooked (steamed, boiled or sautéed). At a time when the leaves are becoming tougher, these are tender and fresh tasting. They are quite thin, so don’t need much cooking to soften them. They also work well as tempura. The only drawback is that, individually, they aren’t particularly substantial, but to compensate for this, they are often produced in abundance. Again, the bottom inch or so of larger stems can be tough, so it’s best discarded.
Speciality Produce, who I mentioned above offer ‘Flowering Minutina’ as a seasonal product, which they describe ‘as tender and salty with a nutty earthiness, similar to wild asparagus’, which they resemble (see here). Again, I've only really noticed saltiness, when the plants grow along the coastline, but even without that they are delicious.
They don’t really need dressing up, as they’re excellent with just a drizzle of some good olive oil, or a dash of balsamic vinegar or lemon juice, or even simply with some melted butter. Make that garlic butter, and you’ve got something exceptional. If you want something a little fancier, I can thoroughly recommend a recent meal I made with them: boiled for 5 minutes, until tender, then served with fresh red chilli pepper, lemon grass, and a sweet ginger and soy sauce reduction – made by simmering sugar, ground or grated ginger and soy sauce on a low heat until it has the consistency of honey or a balsamic glaze. I had meant to add spring onions, but when it came to making it I forgot about them. Nevertheless, it was very tasty!
Finally, like other members of the genus (recall the ‘Psylliums’ I mentioned earlier), Buck’s Horn Plantain has edible seeds and seed-husks. Both the husks and the larger, and more abundantly produced of the two types of seed, are rich in gel-forming or mucilaginous polysaccharides, which are useful as a thickening, stabilizing and/or binding agent. And as these pass through the digestive system more or less unchanged, they are also a useful source of dietary fibre. The seeds are also likely to be quite high in protein – I’ve lost track of my source, but those of P. major and P. lanceolata have been measured at around 17%.
Both seed and husk are pretty easy to harvest. Once the seed heads are dry, simply hold them over a bowl and run your fingers along the stem, and voila! And as they have similar culinary properties, for the most part the grain (or pseudo-grain) doesn’t really need to be separated from the chaff.
Should you want to do so, you’ll be glad to know that they are also fairly easy to de-husk, as long as they are properly dry, either by rubbing roughly between your hands or, since the seeds themselves are quite hard, grinding lightly in a pestle and mortar. Using either method, they can then be winnowed as you would other grains. At home this can be done by simply pouring from one bowl to another in a light breeze (or near a fan on a low setting), so that the heavier seeds are caught while the lighter husks are blown away. The downside to this, of course, is that the husks are usually lost in the process. If you opt for the second method, and ensure that the husks are finely ground, however, you should be able to use a sieve to separate the two. Incidentally, that is more or less the process used to separate commercial psyllium husks from the seeds – the latter are lower in mucilage and therefore of less value – except that the pressure is applied by rotating rollers and plates (see here and here).
If you do choose to separate the two, then the seeds can be used as a substitute for chia or flax seeds.
You can also grind either or both of the seeds and husks in a pestle and mortar, a spice blender or a mill (which ever you have handy) to make flour. This is an especially useful addition to other gluten free flours, particularly when making bread or pizza bases, where it helps stabilize and improves the texture of the dough.
If you add boiled water to them separately or together, and leave it to stand (or bring a pan to the boil and gently simmering it), you can also make porridge of a sort. The flavour is, shall we say, acquired, a bit like milled flax seed, but more grassy. Personally I’m not a fan of either, unless they’re mixed with fruit or something else, like oats at a ratio of 1:9 in favour of the oats, but others may like it. There’s a good guide on how to make this with Greater or Common Plantain (P. major) here.
Traditionally psyllium has been used to top bread, mixed with honey, marmalade, or stewed fruits, used as a thickener in soup, as an ingredient in the making of chocolates and jellies (although I couldn’t find details). It has also been utilized as the base for making confectionaries, and mixed with other ingredients such as sugar, aniseed, cardamom, or rosewater (Cho, S. S. and Clark, C., 2001: 473). This is something I will definitely be trying when I next have a glut!
So there you have it, Buck’s Horn Plantain, an underused, but exceptionally versatile herb, with a rich history of use for food, and hopefully – perhaps even with some help from this post – a future in which it finds a place (which it undoubtedly deserves) in our gardens and ultimately upon our plates.
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