Monday, November 11, 2013

Plant Story: Plantains (Plantago), Tracking Your Footsteps All Over the World

common plantain, Plantago major
plantain (common plantain, Plantago major)
Plantain is that little plant you stepped on crossing the lawn at the park.

The weedy plantains are small, common and easily overlooked.

In the U.S. there are two species of plantain from Europe that are found in every state, common plantain, Plantago major and lanceleaf plantain, Plantago lanceolata. The flat plant with leaves sticking out in all directions, the prominent veins running down the leaves and the distinctive flower heads make them easily recognizeable. Common plantain has the broad leaves (first photo). Lanceleaf plantain has the narrow leaves (second photo). The names plantain and Plantago for these plants both go back to the Latin word planta, meaning footprint.

lanceleaf plantain, Plantago lanceolata
lanceleaf plantain, Plantago lanceolata 
plantain flowering, Berlin, Germany
plantain flowering, Berlin, Germany
Being common, they have many English names. The names are diverse and overlap between the two species. My sources were American, English and Australian. This is a certainly not a complete list of the common names of Plantago major and P. lanceolata so you might call it something else! Anyway, Plantago major is known as:  broad-leaved plantain, buckhorn, buckhorn plantain, cart track plant, cart track plantain, cuckoo's bread, common plantain, dooryard plant, dooryard plantain, Englishman's foot, greater plantain, healing blade, hen plant, lambs foot, mother-die, ripple grass, rippleseed plantain, roadweed, roundleaf plantain, slan-lus, snakeweed, soldier's herb, waybread, wayside plantain, white man's footprint, white man's foot.  Plantago lanceolata is known as: black jack, black plantain, buckhorn plantain, chimney sweeps, cocks, costa canina, English plantain, headsman, hen, jackstraw, Johnsmas flooer, kemps, lamb's tongue, lanceleaf plantain, long plantain, mother-die, narrow-leaf plantain, plantain, quinquenervia, ribble grass, ribgrass, ribwort, ribwort plantain, ripplegrass, snake plantain, wendles

Native to Eurasia, the plantains almost certainly expanded as prehistoric humans made roads and settled down to live in settlements, routinely trampling some areas. Not many plants survive being walked on very much, but the weedy plantains are more tolerant than most, so they increase in busy areas. 


narrowleaf plantain
narrowleaf plantain, Boulder, Colorado
One character that makes a good weed is "plasticity," the ability to grow tall if growing with taller plants, or be small but flower in a mowed lawn, or lie flat on a trampled lawn--you get the picture. The plantains rarely get more than 6" (15 cm) tall but they flatten or put their leaves up depending on the conditions. Tiny plants in bad locations will still flower. My pictures are mostly of big, good condition plants. Look for miniaturized ones where you walk.  

Both plantains are believed to have reached North America (and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) soon after colonization. Many of our common weeds are useful plants that the colonists intentionally brought and that grew well enough in the new land that they escaped into the wild (naturalized). The plantains have been used for an array of medical applications for at least 2000 years from Europe to China. The uses include as a treatment for coughs, gastritis, enteritis, burns and stings (See some of those uses in Mrs. Grieve  or any online herbal site). Germany's Commission E approved plantain for inflammation of throat and skin ( link and link to two secondary sources). It is easy to imagine settlers carefully packing plantain seeds with their chamomile and sage seeds.

common plantain, Norway
common plantain with seeds,
Narvik, Norway
However, the plantains quickly took off on their own. The tiny seeds are easily carried in small amounts of mud and so the plantains traveled wherever people went. All across North America, they were one of the earliest European plants encountered by Native Americans, who are reportedly responsible for the common name "white man's footprint." Certainly the plantains moved quickly along the trails of trappers and traders.

Both plantains are now found around the world. They are generally temperate zone plants and less common in the tropics, where they do better at higher elevations. (see P. major in Africa map). 

That piece of basic plant ecology may be too simple for these hardy little plants. The collections of P. major listed in the Flora of Costa Rica are at 220 m (660') (one plant with abundant fruit) and three at about 1000 m (3000') and they have been collected by botanists 27 times in Panama, about 20% of the time below 1000 m. and most of the rest between 1000-2000 m. (Costa Rica data; Panama data). Living at 1,500 m (5000') I wouldn't call those high elevations. On the other hand, the handful of reports from Costa Rica and Panama suggests they are not as abundant in tropical regions as in the temperate zone. The problem with drawing conclusions from how often botanists made herbarium specimens is that botanists tend to under-collect common weedy things, either thinking someone else did or that the plant is uninteresting. Watch for plantains in the tropics and draw your own conclusions.
narrowleaf plantain, Ohio
narrowleaf plantain, Youngstown, Ohio
(leaves not pink flowers)

Anyway, my goal was to draw your attention to the plantains next time you walk over them. And just about anywhere in the world, you will walk over them. The phrase is "cosmopolitan" and they really are. 


narrowleaf plantain, New Zealand
narrowleaf plantain, New Zealand
Most places--North America, China, New Zealand, South America--have native Plantago species, relatives of these two cosmopolitan weeds. You will have to look a LOT harder to find the natives. For example, the continental U.S. has 29 species of Plantago according to U.S.D.A Plants page (link then click on Subordinate Taxa), of which 24 species are native. Yet the plantains that are "everywhere" are P. major and P. lanceolata from Europe. The native Plantago species tend to be found in more natural, less human-impacted habitats and those--alas pretty much everywhere--are less common than parking lots, street corners, city parks and the like, habitats in which common plantain and lanceleaf plantain do well. 

Blackseed plantain, Plantago rugelii, is the one native American Plantago that appears to have responded the same opportunity as its Eurasian relatives and moved into disturbed sites. Several of the other widely distributed native American Plantago species are listed as rare and endangered.

In the U.S., Arkansas considers the weedy plantains noxious weeds. Elsewhere they are just part of the plant mixture of public lawns and well-trampled edges.


Plantago major, Taiwan
Plantago major, near Tiansiang, Taiwan
Common plantain and lanceleaf plantain, however, are not bad plants to have spread around the world in our over-used areas. Read about their herbal uses online. The easiest one is: if you get a minor scrape in the park, rip off a leaf, mash it up and apply it to the skin. The goo inside the leaf is soothing and in fact healing. (As always, try not to use a leaf that has recently been peed on by a dog or sprayed with insecticide).


This is a familiar plant you can spot all around the world. We've made similar environments all around the world and some plants, the plantains for example, have made good use of that.
Plantago major, Korea
Plantago major, Jeju Island, Korea

Notes: 
Plantain is also the name of a group of starchy bananas used in cooking--no relation to PlantagoLink

Geeky botanical discovery made writing this blog: Plantago is in the plant family named after it, the Plantaginaceae, the plantain family (blog explaining plant families). DNA evidence has recently moved familiar plants such as the speedwells (Veronica species, pictures ) and the beardtongues (Penstemon see pictures), into the Plantaginaceae. See Wikipedia for a slightly technical summary ( Plantaginaceae). I had no idea the plantains were near relatives of (and put in the same family as) speedwells and beardtongues! Surprises in plant relationships just keep on coming! (See my blog on plant relations.)


Comments and corrections welcome.

References consulted (11/3/13)
Australian Naturopathic Network 2008 http://www.ann.com.au/herbs/Monographs/plantago.htm
Culpeper, J. Culpeper's Complete Herbal. 1652. Online at https://archive.org/stream/culpeperscomplet00culpuoft#page/n285/mode/2up/search/plantain pp. 273, 275
Flora of Panama http://www.tropicos.org/Name/25200022?projectid=4Georgetown University Medical Center, Department of Physiology and Biophysics, Complementary and Alternative Medicine , http://pharmacology.georgetown.edu/urbanherbs/english_plantain.htm
Grieve, Mrs. M. 193s. A Modern Herbal II. Common plantain. http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/p/placom43.html
Heilpflantzen Welt Bibliotek (healing plants of the world library) http://buecher.heilpflanzen-welt.de/BGA-Commission-E-Monographs/0300.htm
Prota Data Base--map of distribution in Africa, http://database.prota.org/PROTAhtml/Plantago%20major_En.htm
Vickery, R. 1995.Oxford Dictionary of Plant-Lore. London: Oxford University Press.

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