Ask A Master Gardener-When A Weed Is Not A Weed

Broadleaf plantain (plantago major) and buckhorn plantain (plantago lanceolate) are two of the most common and over looked weeds. The word plantago originates from the Latin word planta meaning “sole of the foot”.   These plants are so innocuous that one can simple walk over them and never realize it. Plantain was believed to be brought to this county by colonists and spread so rapidly that Native Americans dubbed it “white man’s footprint” as it seemed to follow where the settlers went.

Both plantains grow in a rosette form, but broadleaf plantain has, as the name implies, broad leaves in a lance or egg shape with five to seven parallel veins. The green, inconspicuous flowers appear in the spring to late summer and are densely packed along center spikes.

Buckhorn plantain leaves are much more narrow, but with similar veining. The flowers are only on the ends of the wiry stems.  Both plantains are an important food sourced for the larva of the Buckeye butterfly, Junonia coenia.  Birds also eat the seeds of plantain which contain a higher percentage of oil than many other seeds and are often included in bird seed mixes.

Are these plants weeds or beneficial? The loose definition of a weed is “a plant that is growing where it is not wanted.”  That makes almost anything without a purpose a weed.  With its propensity to crop between sidewalk cracks, in flower beds, along buildings, in abandoned areas, and pretty much anywhere else, plantain meets the qualifications for a weed.  Of course, if people know of no purpose for it, then it would most certainly be classified as a weed.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used plantain for a variant of purposes, including asthma, fevers, and eye disorders. Native Americans used it as a poultice for pain, swelling, wounds, insect bites, snake bites, cuts, and sores.  Personal experience tells me that it works wonders on bee and wasp stings.  Crushing the leaves and immediately applying it to the sting will take away any pain and reduce the swelling.  Reapply if necessary and in a short time evidence of the sting is gone.

Young plantain leaves are edible with a somewhat nutty and asparagus-like flavor. (The older leaves are far to fibrous too be edible.) Flavor is enhanced if sautéed in a little olive oil for just a few minutes. They are especially high in calcium and Vitamins A, C, and K.  A tea can be made from both the leaves and the root.  Some say the flavor is subtle, others declare it terrible. Any time a wild plant is harvested, make sure to positively identify it, ensure it is taken from a pesticide-free area, and watch where friendly dogs may have relieved themselves.

If experimenting with new foods is just not on your bucket list, but a well-manicured lawn is, then this plant is nothing more than a weed. Do not despair; it is also one of the easier ones to control.  Hand pulling is a practical and simple approach.  The fibrous roots come out easily with little effort.  Keeping a healthy, dense lawn will keep them at bay and those that do show up in odd locations can simply be removed.  But, consider keeping a few around.  One never knows when a bee sting might happen.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

Sharing is Caring - Click Below to Share