Common Plantain is a perennial growing from fibrous roots descending from a very short rhizome, that produces one or more erect narrow flower stalks, 2 to 12 inches high, less that 1/3 inch wide, with a blunt tip.
Leaves have five to seven prominent ribs and some less prominent that join together to form a stalk with a prominent concave groove. Leaves are all basal, elliptical to oval and form a rosette at the bottom of the plant. They are usually entire but may have very coarse indentations. Small leaves may form near the base of the flower spikes.
The inflorescence is a densely packed spike (a raceme) atop the flowering stem. The flowering stem is hairless, slightly angled, and rarely branched.
Flowers: The tiny flowers are 1/16 inch long, 4-parted, with white to purplish-green corollas. Each has 4 stamens with yellowish anthers that turn purplish at maturity. There is a single white fleshy style. Both style and stamens are exserted from the bell shaped corolla. There are 4 sepals, each keeled, There is a green bract below the flower which is widely oval. The flower stigma of the style withers away before the anthers are ripe, which allows and insures cross fertilization.
The fruit is a two-celled ovoid shaped capsule, about 5 mm long, that has 4 or 5 to 16 light to dark brown seeds that are of a truncated ellipsoid shape averaging 2.5 mm long. Seeds disperse by wind.
See Eloise Butler's notes below.
Habitat: Common Plantain is a plant of disturbed areas, lawns, roadsides and other drier areas lacking in native cover. A variety of soil conditions is tolerated but full to partial sun is required. It it not considered invasive but can be a weedy problem in certain conditions. Roots are fibrous with short rhizomes.
Names: The genus Plantago, is derived from the Latin planta, meaning 'footprint' and may be a reference to the plant showing up where ever man has set his foot. The species name major, means 'large or greater' as compared to another species that is smaller. The author name for the plant classification, 'L.', refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. As to the other common names, they are explained in the various notes and quotes at the bottom of the page.
Comparisons: A similar plant is the Black-seed Plantain, P. rugelii, where the seeds are black and the leaf stalks frequently reddish (see photo below).
Above: 1st photo - The inflorescence is a densely packed raceme of small 4-parted flowers, maturing from the bottom to the top. Note how the anthers have turned dark on the lower older flowers. 2nd photo - Plant leaves are all basal withe the flowering stem rising from the root.
Below: 1st photo - Flowers are quite small and appressed to the central stem. The anthers and style are exserted but the female parts wither away before the anthers mature. 2nd photo - Typical basal rosette of leaves on long grooved stalks.
Below: 1st photo - Main leaves have 3 main veins and several several lateral with forking between them. 2nd photo - In the Black-seed Plantain, P. rugeliithe basal part of the leaf stalk has reddish coloration. 3rd photo - Seed capsule maturing on the stem. Each ovoid capsule has 2 chambers and 4 to 16 brown seeds that disperse by the wind when the capsule splits.
Below: Open seed capsules and the dark brown seed. The capsules are about 5 mm long and the seeds about 2.5 mm. Note how the top (lid) separates from the capsule - "lidded like little snuff boxes" as Eloise Butler wrote.
Notes: Common Plantain is common in the Garden and the area of Wirth Park as far back as the founding of the Garden. Common Plantain was introduced to North America and is now found throughout except the very northern reaches of Canada. In Minnesota it is found scattered throughout the state with 1/3 of the counties not reporting it. However, considering its ubiquitousness, it probably exists in a number of those also. One of the plant's more unusual common names is "Englishman's Foot" or "White man's foot" referring to the fact that whereever the English have taken possession of the soil the Plantain shows up.
Eloise Butler wrote of this plant: "The cosmopolite weed, the common plantain or ribwort (Plantago major) is presented in this paper for comparison with the somewhat more decorative Water Plantain Alisma plantago. But it is hoped that the former will win some favor, although universally considered a homely weed. The contrast of the wandlike, fruiting spikes with the deeply ribbed rosette of leaves is surely not without charm. The leaves illustrate one of the methods of preventing over-shading, a difficulty met with in the rosette habit. In the plantain each leaf gets its modicum of light and air, by the upper and inner leaves being smaller and shorter stalked than the lower ones. Birds are fond of the seeds enclosed in the little rounded pods, which are lidded like snuff boxes. Farmers put the leaves in their hats to protect from sunstroke in haying time. Again, when macerated, the leaves are deemed a sovereign remedy to use as a poultice for inflammatory bruises." Published Aug. 13, 1911, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune.
Medicinal Lore: There is considerable literature on the use of Plantago major in medicinal concoctions. Mrs. Grieve (Ref. #7) gives a good summary and also tells us that "from the days of Chaucer onwards we find reference in literature to the healing powers of Plantain." She references Shakespeare's plays and various herbals including Culpepper. She relates some interesting stories going back as far as Pliny the Elder about the use of Plantain to ward off the effects of various venomous bites. Erasmus relates in Colloquia a story of a toad bitten by a spider, who was "straightway freed from any poisonous effects he may have dreaded by the prompt eating of a Plantain leaf." Closer to modern times, Densmore, in her study of the Minnesota Chippewa (Ref. #5), reports their use of the fresh leaves for treating skin inflammation, which harks back to some of the older European reported uses. Densmore also references that it was used for bites and that the Chippewa carried powdered root as a charm to ward off snake bites.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"