Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Water Plantain

Alisma plantago-aquatica L. or A. subcordatum Raf..

By Adam Benfer

The water plantain (also known as the mud-plantain) is another edible aquatic plant that produces edible tubers, but does not seem to have had much of a place in the Native American diet. However it does have potential to be used as food if prepared correctly.


The water plantain is a perennial aquatic plant with long-stalked, 18 cm long leaves that are smooth and have round or heart-shaped bases, pointed tips, and anywhere from 3 to 9 parallel ribs. The plant grows from a oval corm beneath the surface. Water plantain flowers bloom as a 30 cm tall open spray of small flowers on slender stalks with 3 small white petals and 3 green sepals. The flowers turn into thin little disks of scaly fruits (Fernald and Kinsey 1958: 89; Marles et al. 2000: 272).

Geographic Distribution

Water plantains grow commonly along the muddy shores and margins of marshes, ponds, streams and even in some ditches across the northern hemisphere, South America, and North Africa (Fernald and Kinsey 1958; Marles et al. 2000: 272).

Food Use

The tubers (or corms) of the water plantain, which can be gathered when the roots are well filled sometime autumn to spring, “are farinaceous and it is stated that after thorough drying, to rid them of an acrid taste, they are eaten by the Calmucks. The species are so closely allied that it is probable that any of them might be used” (Fernald and Kinsey 1958: 89). The Iroquois used to use this plant to make a tea used by forest runners (Moerman 1998: 56).

Other Uses

The Cree used to take the dried stem base (eaten plain or grated into water) for heartburn, stomachaches, cramps, constipation, the stomach flu, and to prevent fainting during childbirth. The Iroquois used an infusion of the plant for “womb troubles”, the split roots as a kidney and orthopedic aid, the roots to strengthen veins, and a mixture of the roots to treat tuberculosis. The Cherokee used a poultice of the plant or the root to treat old sores, wounds, swelling, ulcers, and bowel complaints (56).


Fernald, Merritt Lyndon, and Alfred C. Kinsey
1958 Edible wild plants of Eastern North America. Rev. ed. New York,: Harper.
Marles, Robin James, Canada. Natural Resources Canada., and Canadian Forest Service.
2000 Aboriginal plant use in Canada's northwest boreal forest. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Moerman, Daniel E.
1998 Native American ethnobotany. Portland, Or.: Timber Press.