Plantains, especially common plantain, Plantago major, and lanceleaf plantain, Plantago lancelolata, are very common plants, so common they usually go unnoticed.
They’re small plants (up to 20” tall, often much less) with flat leaves and distinctive veins running the length of the rounded (common plantain) or long narrow (lanceleaf plantain) leaves. All the leaves come out of a central spot in the ground (no stem). The flower stalks are leafless, and have tiny pale flowers that become brown seeds without looking very different.
Found in every state, common plantain and lanceleaf plantain came to North America from Europe long ago, probably with the first settlers. The plants have medicinal properties, treating coughs and burns in particular, so early settlers packed plantain seeds along with mint and chamomile. Plantains disperse easily and can grow under a wide range of conditions, so they spread out on their own. They followed Europeans all over the continent. Native Americans in the plains called them “white man’s footprints.” They are currently easy to find worldwide.
Many places–North America, China, New Zealand, South America–have native plantains Plantago species (plantain family, Plantaginaceae), but the natives are not nearly so common. The continental U.S. has 24 native and five introduced species of Plantago. Native plantains generally inhabit more natural areas, which are less common than parking lots, street corners, and baseball fields where weedy plantains grow. Several native American Plantago species are considered rare and endangered.
There are natives that are weedy. Blackseed plantain, Plantago rugelii, is an American Plantago that, in the eastern U.S., is found in the same places as common plantain and lanceleaf plantain. It looks very much like common plantain. Dwarf plantain, Plantago virginica, looks somewhat like lanceleaf plantain and is found across the southern U.S.
The names plantain and Plantago are variations of the Latin word planta. Planta, being, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an obsolete English word for the sole of the foot, as it is in Latin. The flat leaves along pathways reminded the Romans of footprints. Very few plants can survive being walked on but the weedy plantains do better than most.
Plantain is also the name of a group of starchy bananas used in cooking That name came from the Spanish, plantano, and they are no relation to the plantains of footprints (Plantago).
We call plantains weeds (though they don’t do much harm) and disparage them, but it is tough to be a weed. Weed seeds land in poor soils, dry spots, and cracks in the pavement, and are trampled, mowed, and pulled up. Many die. The plantains are successful in weedy habitats because their flat leaves give them a bigger “footprint” with more light and water. They are flexible in their growth, growing tall if in an unmowed lawn, lying flat in mowed areas. Tiny plants often manage to produce a few seeds. They are perennial and if conditions permit, will live several years.
From Europe to China to North America before European settlement, plantains have been used medicinally for millennia. They treated coughs, gastritis, enteritis, burns and stings, skin conditions and much more, depending on the place and the species of plantain. Germany’s Commission E, after rigorous testing, approved lanceleaf plantain as a safe and effective treatment for inflammation of throat and skin, though, as with many plants, persons with allergies should use it cautiously.
Plantain leaves are edible. They become fibrous with age, so are more palatable early in the spring.
Since they are known all over the world, there is a lot of plantain folklore. For example, in Manchester, the English called it mother-die because that was what would happen if you brought plantain into the house. Its medical (magical?) powers let it cure by proximity: tied with red wool around your head, it would cure a headache and if placed under tired feet, remove weariness. A piece of plantain in the pocket protected the bearer from snakebite.
Plantains grow all over the world because humans have made similar habitats everywhere. And yet, a plant that soothes bee stings (just mash up the leaf to get the mucilage) is not a bad plant to find growing along our paths.
Cunningham, S. 1993. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Deane, G. White Man’s Little Foot: Dwarf Plantain. EattheWeeds.com http://www.eattheweeds.com/white-mans-little-foot-dwarf-plantain-2/’ Accessed 2/27/20.
Edible Wild. Plantain. https://www.wildedible.com/wild-food-guide/plantain Accessed 2/26/20.
Grieve, Mrs. M. 1938. A Modern Herbal II. Common plantain. Dover Publications, New York. Online at 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. Reports Commission E’s study of plantain.
Oxford English Dictionary online. ”plantain, n.1” and “plantain, n.3”. OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press. https://www-oed-com.libproxy.unl.edu/view/Entry/145162 and 145164. Accessed February 27, 2020.
Vickery, R. 1995.Oxford Dictionary of Plant-Lore. London: Oxford University Press.
As a former Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kathy Keeler’s specialties range from ant-plant interactions to grass genetics to studies of prairie plants.
Retired, she now pursues travel and history, endlessly fascinated by different places and times.
And, wherever Kathy goes, she is irresistibly drawn to plants.
On this website and on her blog you can gain a deeper enjoyment of the natural world and discover information about plants that will delight and enchant you.