English Plantain

Plantago lanceolata

english_plantain_flowers_12-21-13.jpg

Photo of English plantain flowers
Like the common dandelion, English plantain should be familiar to every Missourian. This perennial herb occurs in fields, lawns, roadsides, and other disturbed habitats.
John D. Byrd, Mississippi State University, Bugwood.org
Edible
Family

Plantaginaceae (plantains)

Description

English plantain is a perennial herb with a basal rosette of leaves and 1or more leafless flowering stalks. Flowers in spikes, terminal on scapes (leafless stems), with tiny, white flowers with a 4-parted corolla. The flowering head develops a brownish appearance due to many short bracts subtending (beneath) each flower. Blooms April–October. Leaves in a basal rosette, lanceolate, with parallel veins and long, tapering petioles (leaf stalks).

This is one of the few dicot plants that has leaves with parallel veins. Usually, that characteristic belongs only to the monocots, a large class of plants that includes grasses, lilies, orchids, iris and so on. Dicots, on the other hand, usually have leaf veins that spread out, like those of maple or bay leaves.

This plantain and the rest of the plantain family are unrelated to the tropical banana-like plantains. Those fruits are in their own family and are more closely related to ginger and cardamom. English plantain has more in common with mints and lilacs.

Size

Height: about 5–15 inches.

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Photo of English plantain, full view, showing growth habit
English Plantain (Growth Habit)
English plantain is a common perennial herb that came to America with early European settlers. It flourishes as a weed in disturbed sites but is rarely found in natural landscapes.
Habitat and conservation

Occurs in fields, waste places, rights-of-way, lawns, gardens and other disturbed places, often in dry soils. An Old World plant, this species followed European colonists as they explored and colonized the globe. Like dandelions and similar plants, it has several adaptions that allow its many seeds to spread easily and widely. Fortunately, it grows best in disturbed ground and does not commonly invade established natural landscapes.

image of English Plantain distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Human connections

"Pip, pip, and cheerio!" Many of our most common weeds traveled with European colonists "across the pond" and have done "smashingly well" over here! Like the common dandelion, English plantain should be familiar to every Missourian.

This plant has lived alongside humans for centuries, so naturally people explored its potential as medicine. Even today, some herbalists make a tea out of the leaves and use it to treat coughs and other respiratory ailments. The leaves, and apparently the resulting tea, is high in vitamins A and C.

If plantains as weeds vex you, then consider having the last laugh by eating them. The leaves, when young, can be used like lettuce in a wild salad. Tender new growth is available for a long period of time, since this plant grows so rapidly. You can also cook the young leaves as greens; be advised that plantain doesn't need much cooking or much water, and it is best when it's still a bit crunchy.

Ecosystem connections

The flowers are wind-pollinated, so insects rarely visit the flowers.

The foliage is consumed by larval stages of some butterflies and moths as well as by other insects.

The wide-spreading leaves at the base serve the plantain well by shading out any plants that might try to grow nearby. Compare English plantain's growth habit and ability to reproduce to the common dandelion's, and you'll see several similarities.