Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major)

Broadleaf plantain, White man's footprint, Waybread, Greater plantain

While native to Europe, the common plantain was one of the first plants to reach North America through early European explorers. Native Americans have referred to Plantago major as ‘white man’s footprint’, as it disrupted many local ecosystems by its introduction.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Plantago major, the broadleaf plantain, white man’s footprint, waybread, or greater plantain, is a species of flowering plant in the plantain family Plantaginaceae. 

Plantago major is a herbaceous, perennial plant with a rosette of leaves 15–30 centimeters (6–12 inches) in diameter. Each leaf is oval-shaped, 5–20 cm (2–8 in) long and 4–9 cm (1+1⁄2–3+1⁄2 in) broad, rarely up to 30 cm (12 in) long and 17 cm (7 in) broad, with an acute apex, a smooth margin, and a distinct petiole almost as long as the leaf itself. There are five to nine conspicuous veins over the length of the leaf. The flowers are small, greenish-brown with purple stamens, produced in a dense spike 5–15 cm (2–6 in) long on top of a stem 13–15 cm (5–6 in) tall and rarely to 70 cm (28 in) tall.

Plantain is wind-pollinated and propagates primarily by seeds, which are held on the long, narrow spikes which rise well above the foliage. Each plant can produce up to 20,000 seeds, which are very small and oval-shaped, with a bitter taste.

The plant is native to most of Europe and northern and central Asia, but has widely naturalized elsewhere in the world.

Plantago grows in lawns and fields, along roadsides, and in other areas that have been disturbed by humans. It does particularly well in compacted or disturbed soils. It is believed to be one of the first plants to reach North America after European colonization. Reportedly brought to the Americas by Puritan colonizers, plantain was known among some Native American peoples by the common name “white man’s footprint”, because it thrived in the disturbed and damaged ecosystems surrounding European settlements. The ability of plantain to survive frequent trampling and colonize compacted soils makes it important for soil rehabilitation. Its roots break up hardpan surfaces, while simultaneously holding together the soil to prevent erosion.

The seeds of plantain are a common contaminant in cereal grain and other crop seeds. As a result, it now has a worldwide distribution.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

Broadleaf plantain prefers full sun, but will also grow well in part shade conditions.

Temperature and Humidity

Broadleaf 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.

Watering

Common plantain doesn’t need much supplied water. Keeping the soil somewhat moist is best, but it is both drought and wet tolerant, so over- or underwatering isn’t a major concern for this plant. Common plantain will thrive without any extra water once it’s fully established.

Soil

As befits a plant with a reputation as a weed, broadleaf 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.

Fertilizing

Common plantain does not require any fertilizer thanks to its enjoyment of poor soils. However, should you like a larger plant, adding some compost or a balanced fertilizer is your best bet. Liquid, granular, and organic are all good options.

Planting Instructions

  • When to Plant

Broadleaf 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.

  • Selecting a Planting Site

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 broadleaf plantain. The more common problem is limiting its spread, which you can do by clipping off the flower spikes before they can set seed.

Propagation

Broadleaf 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.

Pests and Diseases

Plantain plants are hardy, with a tendency to thrive in adverse conditions – that’s why they’re known as weeds by many people, after all!

You shouldn’t face many issues when growing this plant at home. Here are just a few problems to keep an eye out for:

Herbivores and Omnivores

Plantain provides food for all sorts of wildlife. Herbivores including rabbits, deer, cattle, and sheep may munch on the greens and flower stalks.

Omnivores including groundhogs (aka woodchucks) and songbirds may stop by to eat the leaves or seeds as well.

Common Pests 

Several types of insects may also like to visit your plantain crop as a source of food, though visits from friendly pollinators are uncommon. If you’re growing enough, you should have plenty to share with the bugs!

Aphids

These small insects like to suck sap from leaves, damaging plants. Management is generally not necessary, however, as it is unlikely that an infestation will get out of control.

If you see them, knock them off with a strong spray from the hose.

Buckeye Caterpillars

Junonia coenia, or common buckeye butterflies, lay single eggs on plants, as opposed to the clusters of other types of butterfly eggs that you might see on other host plants around the garden.

Their larvae like to munch on the leafy greens.

These caterpillars are solitary creatures who tend to live alone, and they shouldn’t cause too much damage overall. Pick them off and move them elsewhere, if you like.

Flea Beetles

These small jumping insects chew small holes in leaves, which may result in wilting or stunted plants.

In the unlikely event that an infestation becomes serious, try placing sticky traps around the garden bed to capture these beetles

Common Disease

Few diseases tend to plague plantain, but be sure to keep an eye on maintaining proper airflow between plants, particularly during extended periods of rain and high humidity.

Powdery Mildew

Plantain may be susceptible to powdery mildew. This fungus causes lesions to appear, which can eventually spread over entire stem and leaf surfaces.

A mixture of baking soda, dish soap, and water sprayed on plants can help to keep mildew in check.

III. Types of Broadleaf Plantains

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.

IV. Uses and Benefits 

The mature plant contains pliable and tough fibers that can be used in survival situations to make small cords, fishing line, sutures, or braiding.

Some cultivars are planted as ornamentals in gardens, including ‘Rubrifolia’ with purple leaves, and ‘Variegata’ with variegated leaves.

  • Culinary uses

The leaves are edible as a salad green when young and tender, but they quickly become tough and fibrous as they get older. The older leaves can be cooked in stews. The leaves contain calcium and other minerals, and 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of plantain contain approximately the same amount of beta-carotene as a large carrot. The seeds are so small that they are tedious to gather, but they can be ground into a flour substitute or extender.

  • Medicinal uses

Plantain contains phytochemicals including allantoin, aucubin, ursolic acid, flavonoids, and asperuloside. Plantain extract has been studied for its potential health effects.

Plantain leaves were used commonly in folk medicine for skin poultices on wounds, sores, or insect stings. The root was used for fever and respiratory infections.

  • Ornamental uses

Common plantain is viewed as a common yard weed, but is still cultivated as a garden ornamental in prairie gardens and wildlife gardens. This plant also thrives in grasslands and butterfly gardens, where they serve as food plants for larvae of moths and butterflies.

IV. Harvesting and Storage

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.

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.

Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major) Details

Common name Broadleaf plantain, White man's footprint, Waybread, Greater plantain
Botanical name Plantago major
Plant type Edible
Hardiness zone 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b, 10a, 10b, 11a, 11b, 12a, 12b
Growth rate Medium
Harvest time Fall
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Green
Leaf color Green