Greater plantain (plantago major) is a very common weed in lawns and disturbed ground all over the UK.
Plantago major has many common names. These include broad-leaved plantain, common plantain, rat-tail plantain, great waybrede and wibrow. Native americans also called it White Mans Foot and Englishmans foot. This is because it spread from puritan settlers villages along tracks and worn areas of land.
It is a distinctive plant, and very easy to spot when in a lawn. They often appear on their own or in small groups, crowding out the grass beneath.
It is a native plant to the UK and Europe. Globalisation has helped it to spread and naturalise it throughout the world.
The latin name originates from the word Planta, meaning sole of the foot. i.e. spread out and low growing. Major translates to greater or larger.
Greater plantain is a perennial plant from the Plantaginaceae family. This is is a diverse, cosmopolitan family of small herbs and shrubs. Greater plantain is a relation to the distinctive ribwort plantain. A common hedgerow plant. It it is also distantly related to slender speedwell.
Greater plantain on your lawn
The weed is very easy to spot on your lawn. It is a round plant, usually around 20cm in diameter (but can grow much larger). It has a rosette of leaves which are oval (going to a point) and around 5cm long. The leaves are dark green and have 5 or more conspicuous veins running along the length of the leaf. There is no true stem on the plant. All leaves and flowers come from one growing node in the centre.The flowers are small, greenish-brown and on a dense flower spike protruding 5–15 cm out of the centre. The flowers are wind pollinated and capable of self-fertilisation. Each plant can produce over 20,000 seeds. One plant can produce many offspring and the seeds stay viable in the soil for a long time.
Greater plantain can grow on all soils in the UK. It does prefer fine soils and clay. It grows best in full sun.
In ideal conditions, greater plantain grow from a seed, flower and set seed within 6 weeks. In the UK, seeds often stay dormant through winter and germinate the following spring.
The roots of greater plantain are fibrous and shallow. This enables it to keep hold in shallow, hard soil. It can even grow in cracks in paving and on paths. It re-grows from the roots if the top’s cut off. Greater plantain is an important plant for soil rehabilitation. Its roots break up hard surfaces, while simultaneously holding together the soil to prevent erosion.
Facts, folklore, cooking and medicine
Greater plantain is a nutritious wild edible. It is high in vitamins A, C, and K and calcium. You can eat the young, tender leaves raw, and the older, stringier leaves boiled up in a stew and eaten like spinach.
Plantago major is one of the most abundant medicinal crops in the world. It’s used to treat all sorts of ailments and conditions.
It contains the active chemicals aucubin (an anti-microbial agent), allantoin (which stimulates cellular growth and tissue regeneration), and mucilage (which reduces pain and discomfort). Poultices of greater plantain relieve wounds, stings, sores and draw out splinters. It is a potent coagulant.
Dried leaves can make a plantain tea which treats diarrhoea and dysentery. Fresh plantain seeds or flower heads added to tea may act as an effective bulking laxative. It may also soothe raw, sore throats.
The seeds are so small that they are tedious to gather, but sources say they can be a flour substitute.
The sinews from the mature plant are very pliable and tough. In a survival situation they can make small cords, fishing line, sutures, or braiding. Although the amount one can gather from a single plant may make this very time consuming!
Greater plantain does not easily reproduce vegetatively, so it will not spread or creep through the lawn if unable to produce seed. It is rarely an ongoing problem in lawns. Often only appearing on neglected or compacted lawns.
Aerate often as a preventative. If greater plantain is established dig up and remove the flower spikes before they can produce seed.
Greater plantain is easily controlled with a herbicide, as the large surface area of leaf absorbs chemicals readily.
Further reading and sources
- Garden Organic – Greater plantain – (PDF review)
- Wikipedia – Plantago major
- Wild Food UK – Greater Plaintain
- Oils and Plants – Plantain teas and recipes
- Great Escape Farms – Broadleaf Plantain Plant Information
- Rigby Taylor – Glossary