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Sea Plantain Domestication Project: Toward a New Perennial Vegetable Crop

I get excited about a lot of plants, but few plants have lit my fire as much as this one.

Sea Plantain (Plantago maritima) is a wild perennial vegetable that inhabits maritime environments in temperate to cold climates. It's so resilient it can thrive well below the high-tide line, getting swamped by seawater for multiple hours twice a day. It can handle essentially being watered with saltwater. It also has a similar nutritional and medicinal profile to the other plantains, which means it's a powerhouse. But the best thing about it is its quality as food.

I've put a lot of plantain in my mouth through the years —especially the common wild types, Plantago major and Plantago lanceolata, which I often chew up and apply to insect bites or other skin irritations — but I've never had any that tasted as fantastic as the population of sea plantain I found growing in Searsport, Maine, one day last summer (while visiting the wonderfully seedy couple Eli Rogosa and Cr Lawn). Crunchy, fleshy, salty, fresh, and vibrant, it's easy to start munching on this plant by the handful. There's really nothing like it. And while I only ate it raw, I know it can be cooked or pickled too. Some plants have a bit of bitterness, but not all of them. And none were as bitter as the buckshorn plantain (Plantago coronopus) that people regularly grow in gardens as food. What's more, the fleshy leaves of this species can stay crunchy and delicious without refrigeration for 4 or 5 after harvest — a remarkable quality in any vegetable, but especially one used as a green.

I'd been hoping to find these plants — which grow on seashores around the world, including both coasts of North America — but to find them with ripe seeds too, and on such good-tasting plants, I couldn't have asked for more. (I found some in Iceland a few months later, and almost all of the plants were bitter.) This perennial wild plant has huge potential as a perennial vegetable. Beyond being nutritious, delicious, and supposedly easy to grow (there are many reports of it being grown as a garden plant), it can grow in saline soils, which the world has lots of these days due to both over-irrigation and seawater incursion (both exacerbated by climate change). I grew it from seed once, but the lone seedling I managed to grow from old USDA seeds sadly didn't thrive. This is one I really can't wait to try myself in 2022.

By putting these seeds out into the world, we're hoping to start a collaborative domestication project that I firmly believe could result in the best-tasting perennial green in the world.

Who's in?!

Seeds are available until they run out at www.EFNseeds.com

(We no longer have the bandwidth to give away free seeds for projects like this, but since we have the infrastructure of a seed company now it's easy for us to distribute seeds for the pretty-much nominal cost of a packet. Thank you for understanding.)
Description
This project is intended for anyone who can get ahold of our seeds, or can find some yourself from wild populations
Researcher background
I'm the co-founder of EFN.
Are you seeking volunteer growers or other types of volunteers?
Yes, seeking volunteer growers
How many volunteers do you need?
50
What will you ask volunteers to do?
Volunteers are asked to identify good-tasting, productive individual plants that thrive in typical garden soil. They can save seeds from these (culling the weaker plants), and send them to us, and/or continue growing the best plants together and planting more out to combine the best traits of each. In short, we're asking you to be plant breeders!
Other requirements of volunteers?
None.
Is this a multi-year project?
Yes
Can volunteers expect to be able to keep some germplasm (seeds, bulbs, cuttings, spores, etc) at the close of the project?
Yes, of course
Anything else?
Thanks!
Researcher Location

08318
United States

Project Updates

Downeast ME - sea plantain


project update by
swilcox44303
Sunday, September 25, 2022 - 12:07

I'm about 60 miles east of Searsport. I winter sowed the sea plantain seeds and planted the seedlings out in my garden. The plantain is delicious - a nice snack when I'm out weeding and harvesting. I have one plant with seeds, so I'll try to save them for next year.

Across the bay from Searsport


project update by
elana
Friday, September 23, 2022 - 10:59

I bought these seeds last year, because they were so very local to me, via EFN. I have access to shorefront land and am able to plant these where ever you want, and I can also go harvest if people need more. Nate, I'm happy to harvest more for you too. Do these *have* to grow in seawater, or does it just help?

Sea plantain planted out


project update by
info_10
Friday, July 1, 2022 - 08:27

I sowed my seeds in about February, they were slow to germinate but I got about 60 or so seedlings in the end. I have just planted them out in my polytunnel and waiting to see how they grow/ establish. I will post a pic soon,
Thanks Mandy

@ruthchin26 Looks like weeds to me!


project update by
sorensen.leah
Monday, June 27, 2022 - 11:52

I think that is mostly, if not all, cyperaceous weeds; I don't see any plantain seedlings. :(

For my update:
Started a few batches, in pots, in March and April. One batch perished due to poor soil conditions. The other 2 are alive, but still tiny (it's almost July!). I'll try planting them out in the garden soon to see if that increases their vigor.

L (Seattle WA)

Are any of these sea plantain?


project update by
ruthchin26
Sunday, June 12, 2022 - 08:33

I planted my seeds in early April and now I have a ton of.... something. There were a bunch of weed seeds in my compost so I don't know how much of this is sea plantain and how much is weed grass. My plan is to just let it all grow together and see if plantain-looking seedheads emerge.

Tiny seedlings growing


project update by
trentrhode
Sunday, June 12, 2022 - 04:14

In zone 4, Southern Ontario. I have about 7 tiny seedlings growing that slrouted. Not sure if they'll make it here but I'll try! Will plant in decent garden soil in a protected area in a few weeks and update.

No germination so far


project update by
kwhartington
Sunday, June 12, 2022 - 02:27

I started some seeds in early May in regular garden soil -- no dice.
I just started some new seeds in a mixture of our local (South Jersey, very sandy) soil, potting soil and old aquarium gravel. We'll see if these seeds do better!