One of the most common lawn weeds around is broad-leaved plantain (Plantago major), a major headache for homeowners who dream of a perfect turfgrass lawn. Broad-leaf plantain has a low growth habit that keeps it under the radar (and under mower blades), and its tolerance for heavy foot traffic and compacted soil means that it quickly colonizes in any lawn that sees a lot of hard family use. Plantain has oval-shaped medium leaves that grow in broad, low rosettes. If left to flower, tall, thin spikes with tiny flowers appear, which then produce tiny seeds that are easily spread by the wind to other parts of your yard. If you want to control this plant, dig them out before these flower spikes appear.
Once you learn about its many uses as an edible or medicinal herb, however, you may come to view it a little differently. You'll soon begin to see plantain more as a harvestable crop than a pernicious weed.
Should you want to deliberately cultivate plantain, harvest the seed heads to plant in spring, in whatever area of your garden where you want to establish an ongoing crop. Otherwise, the simple act of routinely hand-weeding your lawn can produce all the plantain you want for the table.
|Botanical Name||Plantago major|
|Common Name||Broad-leaved plantain, plantain, common plantain|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous perennial|
|Size||3–4 inches tall, 4–12 inches wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to part shade|
|Soil Type||Any soil type; tolerates dense, compacted soil|
|Soil pH||4.6–7.8 (acidic to slightly alkaline)|
|Bloom Time||April to September|
|Flower Color||Greenish brown|
|Hardiness Zones||3–12 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Europe, Eurasia (naturalized across eastern North America|
How to Plant Broad-Leaved Plantain
Broad-leaved plantain self-seeds so readily that there's rarely any need to deliberately plant it. The fine seeds take root wherever the wind blows them, so you can often simply wait for seeds to sprout up wherever you have a bare patch of soil. If you do wish to deliberately plant it, small plants can be dug up from the lawn and transplanted to your designated garden spot. Or, harvest seed heads from lawn weeds and plant them where you want them to grow.
There are virtually no serious pests or diseases that will affect your crop of broad-leaved plantain. The more common problem is limiting its spread, which you can do by clipping off the flower spikes before they can set seed.
Broad-Leaved Plantain Care
Broad-leaved plantain prefers full sun, but will also grow well in part shade conditions.
As befits a plant with a reputation as a weed, broad-leaved plantain will grow in just about any soil. It has a tolerance for dense, compacted soils, though will fare best and grow to its largest size in rich, loamy soil with good drainage.
In all but the driest climates, no additional watering beyond rainfall is needed. Ornamental varieties will appreciate about 1 inch of water per week—through rainfall, watering, or a combination of the two.
Temperature and Humidity
Broad-leaved plantain thrives in the hot, humid conditions of summer across most of its hardiness range, zones 3 to 12. It prefers relatively humid conditions, but will also grow in arid climates if it gets supplemental water. West of the Rockies, it is a somewhat less prevalent lawn weed but is still frequently found.
There's no need to feed broad-leaved plantain. It generally does well without any fertilizing.
Broad-Leaved Plantain Varieties
There are three regional subspecies of this plant (Plantago major subsp. major, P. major subsp. intermedia, and P. major subsp. winteri), which are hard to distinguish from one another. There are also two common related species, Rugel’s plantain (P. rugelii), and ribwort plantain (P. lanceolata) with similar cultural needs and similar uses as an edible.
There are also two cultivars of P. major developed as ornamentals. 'Rubrifolia' has purple leaves, and 'Variegata' has variegated leaves.
Harvesting Broad-Leaved Plantain
Plantain is a very nutritious plant with edible leaves and seeds. The leaves are very high in calcium, and vitamins A, C, and K. When harvested young and tender, the leaves are good eaten raw in salads, used in much the same way as spinach. Older, stringier leaves can be boiled for stews. Seeds are often sprinkled on salads or used to flavor stews, though harvesting them can be tedious.
Traditionally, plantain leaves have widespread medicinal use in poultices to treat insect bites and stings, or to soothe cuts and scrapes.
Propagating Broad-Leaved Plantain
Broad-leaved plantain is very easy to propagate by collecting dried seeds and planting them in any suitable garden location. It is also fairly simple to transplant self-seeded specimens, even those growing as lawn weeds, into a suitable garden plot.
Due to its common association as a lawn weed, make sure that you are not harvesting plantain that has been sprayed with any chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. Leaves can be pulled from the plant at any stage. Gently pull the leaf and it will easily separate from the root. Don't worry about harvesting too many leaves from the plant as it will grow back quite quickly. For use in salads, pick the leaves while they are young and tender. Older leaves are tougher and stringier, but they can be boiled for eating.
Medicinally, the leaves are most often used fresh, and they must be crushed, chewed, or bruised to release their healing oils. You can also dry the leaves and work them into a poultice for immediate use to treat insect bites or cuts and scrapes. For long-term storage, use fresh or dry leaves to create an infused herbal oil.
Controlling Plaintain as a Weed
If you are battling plantain as a weed in your yard, the most effective way to kill the plant is to dig it up, root and all. A weed-popper tool will generally extract the entire plant, including the fibrous root. They can also be spot treated with a broad-leaf herbicide, such as 2,4-D, but make sure you are not harvesting these plants for the table.