A place to explore and buy perennial vegetables and other food plants.
Yesterday I made a salad with buck’s horn plantain (Plantago coronopus, also know in Italy as ‘minutina’ or ‘erba stella’ (the latter seems to translate as star herb or star grass, and I’ve also seen it named ‘star-of-the-earth’).
It has sweetish, nutty flavour and is quite mild. I mixed it here with spicy wild rocket leaves, mushrooms and walnuts and a plain olive oil/vinegar salad dressing. I should have trimmed off the lower end of the plantain leaves a little more as they are a bit stringy towards the base (you can probably spot a plantain leaf ‘string’ at the bottom of the photo) but, that apart, it made a very tasty salad.
Plantago coronopus is often a perennial plant (although sometimes annual or biennial) and usually gives green leaves through the winter. Along with scorzonera, purslane and salad burnet I find it especially useful as a source of milder greens for the salad bowl in winter, to mix with stronger flavours like wild rocket and ‘scrunched’ perennial kale. It is a tough plant, very happy in coastal gardens and tolerant of poor soils but plant it in moist, rich soil for the larger, more succulent leaves (and in the shelter of a polytunnel or greenhouse for the tenderest leaves of all!)
This was the plant I picked from for the salad.
It is a fairly non-hairy-leaved plant from a group of very varied plants I have growing. We visited Thornwick Bay on the East Yorkshire coast in 2015 and it was after noticing what a lot of variety there was in the wild Plantago coronopus plants growing there that I wondered if this might be a fairly easy plant breeding project I could try. I still have lots to learn about plant breeding, but it would be great to breed a buck’s horn plantain that had particularly large, tender, tasty and hairless leaves and that was reliably perennial. So I’m having a go.
There was an obvious difference between seedlings from wild and commercial seed I grew last year:
The seedlings in the left-hand and middle batch are derived from commercial seed. They have mostly longer upright leaves, whilst the distinct star-like basal rossettes in the right-hand batch are from the wild Thornwick Bay seed. The latter batch were so distinct as seedlings that at first I thought they might be sea plantain, Plantago maritima, seedlings – but in time they developed the notched leaves typical of Plantago coronopus. It must simply be that plants in cultivation have been selected for more upright foliage.
Once the best of these seedlings were planted out in an allotment bed they developed into a very varied bunch (photos of some them below – taken last autumn and this spring).
Even amongst the ones from commercial seed the leaves varied a lot in shape, size, hairiness, colour (shades of green but also some red tints showed up). I collected seed from plants that seemed to have one or more of my favoured characteristics and sowed it this year, along with some more commercial seed, and some seed a friend saved from a plant he grew that has lovely deep red colouration to the leaf bases. Only a proportion of last year’s plants lived on through the winter and the best of this year’s seedlings have now filled the gaps left by those that perished.
I have questions to ask now on the Plant Breeding for Permaculture Facebook group because, amongst other things, I’m a bit hazy about how to approach selecting for more than one characteristic. I’ve also just been reading that not only is Plantago coronopus ‘gynodioecious’ (having both female plants, and hermaphrodite plants) but its sexual reproduction is quite complex in other ways too (there are two different seed types for instance) so I suppose that might also have a bearing on growing and selecting plants.
But for now I’ll just let these plants grow through the summer. It will be fun to do some taste-sampling to compare the flavour of different plants whilst gathering bunches of leaves for summer salads.