English Plantain

There were more weeds than grass in the “lawn” surrounding my childhood home in Western Pennsylvania. It got mowed and was green so no one in our family was particularly concerned about the dandelion, English plantain, knotweed and other such undesirable plants that predominated. Besides, a manicured lawn is not compatible with bikes, badminton, baseball, and all the other pastimes of rough and tumble kids. I particularly remember English plantain because the brown flowers and seeds could be used as various “foods” for out tea sets. We also used English plantain when playing “war”. By twisting the plantain flower stalk around itself and pushing it up tight against the inflorescence, the flowers would shoot off like a small missile. Of course, this was well before the time anyone considered eye protection – and nobody lost an eye.

English plantain (Plantago lanceolata) was introduced from Eurasia and has spread throughout all of North America. This biennial or short-lived perennial infects lawns, golf courses, agricultural crops, landscaped areas, irrigated pastures, roadsides and can be found along mountain streams.

Lance-like leaves arise from a fibrous rootstock and form a basal cluster. The leaves are covered in short hairs and have a slender stalk. Three to five prominent veins run the length of the English plantain leaf and appear parallel, however, there are vascular connections between the veins. Numerous brownish flowers occur in a dense spike at the end of a grooved, leafless, flower stalk. The long stalk extends well above the basal leaves. The flowers have four greenish sepals and four tiny, fused petals which are papery, dry and semi-transparent. The English plantain inflorescence blooms from the bottom up. The cream or whitish projections are not petals but rather are the stamens (pollen bearing organs). Each seedpod contains two greenish to dark brown seeds.

English plantain leaves, like those of other members of the Plantago genus, are edible raw or cooked as a potherb. The leaf veins often add coarseness so young leaves are the most desirable. The seeds, high in Vitamins K and C, can be ground into a meal and eaten or used as a flour extender.

Medicinally, English plantain seeds have a mucilaginous coating; soaked in water and taken raw they are a good laxative. (Psyllium, a commercial laxative and source of fiber, is prepared from another member of this genus.) English plantain leaves, crushed into a poultice, can be used for minor wounds and irritations. There is also some evidence that the seeds may help reduce blood cholesterol levels.

There are many other colloquial names for  English plantain including buckhorn, buckhorn plantain, ribgrass, narrowleaf plantain and lanceleaf plantain.

These English plantain plants were growing in a meadow beside Ash Creek (Lassen County CA).

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