English plantain (Plantago lanceolata) is a common weed throughout North America. Also known as buck plantain, narrowleaf plantain, or ribwort plantain, it’s one of the plants I learned to recognize and name when I was just a kid.
Easy to recognize, and not a horrid weed as these things go, English plantain is just coming into bloom along our neighborhood roadsides.
This is one tough plant, well adapted to disturbed ground and waste places. Here it’s growing among the gravel just inches from the asphalt down the road from our house. It gets run over and just keeps on growing.
All the leaves on this plant are basal, nestled right there on the ground. They’re long and skinny, thus the lanceolata in the scientific name.
The flower heads are held on tall stems, known in botanical terms as scapes, usually about a foot above the foliage. Individual blossoms are tiny, opening first at the bottom of the cone-like cluster and then working upward as the days pass. They’ll dance in the breeze.
No weed grows by itself. Here the English plantain is joined on the roadside with a mass of reddish sheep sorrel, Rumex acetosella.
While English plantain is not native in Washington, we do have native members of the genus. You can compare two of our native species with this and another common introduced plantain, broad-leaved plantain, on my wildflowers website.
English plantain is reportedly edible, but tough and bitter and not worth the effort. It also is said to have medicinal value, but I’m no expert on that sort of thing.
Next time you come across English plantain, take a close look at one of the flower heads.
When I was a kid we’d make a game of shooting English plantain flowers. We’d pluck a stem at the base, fold it over itself with the flower head and long part of the stem sticking out, and then pull quickly. If it worked, the flower head would snap off the stem and shoot forward. No adult ever complained about us picking the flowers off this weed.