Plantain is native to Europe and Asia but is now found throughout the world if there is sufficient water. In North America it has spread from mid-Canada throughout all the states including Alaska and Hawaii. It can be found from the valleys to mid mountains. It can also be found in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Joan Perry considers plantain to be the rabbit of the plant world. It spreads rapidly, in almost the blink of an eye, plantain plants are flopped around everywhere. Although, Joan states, they aren’t as cute as bunnies their medicinal uses make up for that. If you look for it you will probably find it in your own backyard! There are 3 genera with 270 species in this family, of which around 25-30 have been used domestically.
Plantain is a perennial that dies back in the winter and sprouts anew from the fibrous taproot in spring. (In some areas it is evergreen). It spreads by seeds that stick to feet. This herb likes the well traveled route and doesn’t mind being trampled.It likes the center strip down dirt roads as well as the edges. You can find it growing in paths.It can survive to -38 degreesbelow zero and needs 85 frost free days for good growth and reproduction.
It prefers areas that are moist, sandy and fertile but can survive under other conditions with the soil ranging from a pH of 4.8 to 7.3, sandy to clay, fertile to infertile, and sun to shade.It loves to grow in lawns because of the frequent waterings they receive. It forms a rosette that is close to the ground. Because of this the plant survives mowing even if the flower stalk is cut off.
Thomas Elpel’s key words for the Plantain family are: “Dicots with parallel veins. Slender flower stalks with small, greenish flowers, parts in 4's and lidded capsules”. (Elpel p. 133)He goes on to state thatPlantago major is the easiest member of the plantago family to identify.
Plantain can grow up to 15 cm, but usually remains shorter. It flowers in the summer and is pollinated by the wind. The flowering green-brown stalk can be 3 to 12 inches high. The leafless flower stalk has a dense elongated spike of greenish or sometimes brownish or white flowers. The flowers are numerous, regular and bisexual. The small bell-shaped corolla has lobes that are reflexed and papery. They have 4 united sepals and petals and 4 stamens. The lilac and yellow stamens are protruding. The flowers are inconspicious.
The superior positioned ovary has 2 united carpels that form a single chamber. It matures as a lidded capsule and contains one to four seeds per cell that are gelatinous when wet. The fruit is 1/4 inch long. Some varieties may have as many as 6 to 30 black or brown seeds in a capsule. When the capsules mature they split in half and the minutely nettled seeds fall to the ground. One plant can produce up to fourteen thousand seeds.The seeds can remain in the soil for up to 60 years and still be viable.
Plantain can also grow from shoots off of the root crown or even pieces of the root. It has a short rhizome which has many long, straight and yellowish to grayish-white roots .The roots tend to be thin and branch. The fibrous roots are saline and have a sweetish taste. The root is perennial.
The Plantago major leaves are ribbed, basal, short-stemmed, and broad (3" to 4") with a shape oval to ovate. P. lanceolata leaves are not as broad, they are longer and more narrow. Both leaves are dark green.Size of the leaves varies depending on moisture and fertility of the soil.The leaves have wavy, toothed or smooth edges that may be hairy or hairless. Three to five prominent, parallel veins stretch from the stem to the tip of each leaf which are bluntly pointed.The veins are netted in between the main parallel veins. The leaves are saline and acrid to the taste with bitterness increasing with age.
Plantago atropurpurea is a red leaf variety. It has large round, maroon-colored leaves. The seed capsules have a asparagus-like flavor. It is more tender than P. major. It is not known if it is as good medicinally as P. major or P. lanceolata. Often hybrid plants that have a milder, more tender flavor are not as strong medicinally.
Most plantains look similar and have similar medicinal qualities although there can be some variations in the strengths of their chemical compounds.Hoary plantain (Plantago media) is specific for blight on fruit trees. This is the best plantain for rubbing the leaves on the affected part of the tree. Plantago psyllium is a famous cousin of plantain that has more mucilage than other plantagos. Plantago lanceolate is the variety that is grown commercially. Plantago major and P. lanceolate have the greatest geographic range of this species.
There are some look alikes to be aware of.Broadleaf dock can be mistaken for a plantain. Other plants to watch out for are members of the lily family which contain several toxic plants. Watch for plantain’s prominent veins and definitely the flowers to mark it for positive identification.
Plantain is easy to grow. The best way is to dig up a plant and transplant it. If you gather seeds let them sit a year or two, fresh seeds do not germinate well. Seeds that are 2 to 6 years old give the best results. Once established the only problem will be containing this plant’s traveling seeds. It prefers full sun but will still set seed in partial shade. Plantain is good as a companion plant to red clover, nettle and alfalfa.
Christine Dann asks a question for us to think about. Why do we need lawns? Her conclusion is we don’t! If kids want a play area the park is larger and better suited to active games without the danger of damaging flower beds. Lawns require hours of labor, gasoline to mow and then most adults head to a pavilion or covered area to take their refreshments and visit anyway.
She suggests that natural short grasses and edible native plants would conserve not only time and energy but also water. She offers a list which includes a few from Dr. Christopher’s 100 Herbs list: Achilea millefolium (yarrow), Plantago major or P. lanceolata (plantain), and taraxacum officinale (dandelion). But in some states you might not be able to “grow” plantain. This species is listed as invasive weeds in Connecticut, Washington, and Alaska. In Canada, Manitoba and Quebec they are seen as noxious weeds. This is quite a contrast with Germany where they have “set-aside areas” by law for plantain.
Collecting the herb can be done from late spring to early fall; during flowering and throughout the summer. The leaves need to be dried as rapidly as possible to prevent loss of color. For eating fresh the young leaves should be harvested in spring. After flowering you can dig up the whole plant and hang it for drying. Caged birds love to peck on the seed pods.
Plantain does have a concentration of iridoid glycoside which might relate to insect damage. Plantain is an important food plant for some types of butterfly caterpillars. Plantain is susceptible to Carnation vein mottle potyvirus, Cherry rasp leaf nepovirus, Plantago caulimovirus, Plantago mottle tymovirus and Ribgrass mosaic tobamovirus.
Carnation virus was first identified in 1954. It is hosted in Dianthus caryophyllus and Dianthus barbatus. It is transmitted by the insect, Aphididae. It is transmitted by mechanical inoculation and not by contact between plants or seeds. This virus is worldwide, wherever carnations are grown. Symptoms are necrotic local lesions, rarely systemic.
The Cherry rasp leaf nepovirus is also called the flat apple virus. It was first reported in 1942. The cherry branches that are infected are very frost sensitive, some Prunus species are stunted and decline. It is transmitted from the cherry trees by a nematode: Xiphinema americana. It can be transmitted by mechanical inoculation; by grafting or by seed. This virus has spread throughout North America, the Pacific region, New Zealand, and South Africa. It has been found without evidence of widespread increase in U.K., China, and Australia. Plantain infected will show necrotic or chlorotic local lesions and systemic mottling.
Plantago caulimovirus was first reported in 1981. Right now it is only in the UK. Plantago mottle tymovirus was first reported in the US in 1973. Plantain major shows systemic mottling. This virus is worldwide. Transmitted by grafting, mechanical inoculation and by contact between plants.