Plantago major – broad leafed plantain

Plantago lanceolata – narrow leafed plantain

When is a weed not a weed?  Well possibly when it’s a plantain.

The Saxons recorded the broad leafed variety as one of the nine sacred herbs, and migrants through the ages have taken it with them to other countries, so that in countries like New Zealand and America it has often been called ‘Englishman’s foot’.  It arrived in New Zealand around 1832.

A salve made from the leaves seems to fix a huge variety of skin ailments, including scalds and burns, ulcers and suppurating sores, abscesses and boils, cuts and wounds, and even for drawing poison.

With the very wet winter we’ve just had, there are probably lots of paddocks which were left pugged and denuded of grass, particularly where fertility was low.  And these bare patches are just the thing for long buried seeds of Plantago major to leap up and germinate, getting in ahead of the more slowly recovering grass and clover.

Not that they’ll do any harm as most animals will eat them, but if they cover too much of the bare spots the food value of those areas will be low.  But the leaves of the rosette of the broadleaf variety tend to grow flat to the ground so they don’t form part of the sward when it grows a bit, and even browsers such as donkeys and goats aren’t too keen on getting a mouthful of soil with the leaves.  While it tolerates compaction, waterlogging and treading better than the narrow variety, it often becomes yellowish and sickly in winter, and does better in warmer weather.

The leaves are broad, with stringy veins and blunt tips, narrowing to a long stalk.  The flowers are long narrow green smooth spikes up to 30cm tall, which ripen to brown, carrying seed capsules along half of their length.  Flowers July-April.

The narrow leafed variety begins as a flat rosette, but then produces more leaves from its centre which tend to grow more vertically, forming a clump.  The flower spikes grow up to 40cm long, with ribbed stalks and a flower/seed head produced at the top.  The flower anthers are cream and project as a halo round the corolla.  The brown seeds are tiny, in two-celled capsules, and are sticky when wet.

Plantago lanceolatus is obviously very palatable to stock, and in recent times has even been sown into pastures as a nutritious component with possible health benefits to grazing stock.  It grows well all year and can tolerate drought.

They are susceptible to many hormone herbicides and can thus be removed selectively from turf and lawns.  From pasture, removal of large swards of broad-leaved plantain may be advisable to encourage growth of high nutrition species, but narrow-leaved plantain may be regarded as a drought resistant feed source and left alone.