Broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) is a herbaceous weed that is found across North America. Also called waybread, cuckoo’s bread, doorweed, greater plantain, ripple grass, or snakeweed, it thrives in compact soil and disturbed areas where other species falter.
While the plant is related to plantain, a type of banana, it doesn’t produce the same sort of elongated fruit.
Foragers value the plant for its nutritious leaves and seeds, which are high in calcium, and vitamins A, C, and K. It also has value as a plant for areas troubled by erosion because the tough, large root system can prevent erosion and break up hardpan.
Indigenous people used the plant’s tough fibers to make cordage. Today, it’s rarely cultivated as an ornamental or vegetable and there are variegated (P. major ‘Variegata’) and purple-leaved (P. major ‘Rubrifolia’) cultivars.
Gardeners find the plant to be a weedy nuisance, popping up in garden areas to push out cultivated plants and often hosting disease.
Native to Eurasia, broadleaf plantain migrated from Eurasia to North America, brought by settlers as a medicinal and edible plant, and has naturalized in every state, including Hawai’i, where it’s registered as an invasive weed.
It’s also known as white man’s footprint or cart track plant because it was a tell-tale sign to indigenous people that white settlers had been in the area.
Because broadleaf plantain grows among cereal crops, it is frequently harvested and packaged with cereal grains. That’s how the plant has been able to travel to and colonize almost every part of the globe in temperate areas.
It grows in most areas except extremely high elevations above 7,000 feet and arid, dry deserts. It tolerates soggy, wet soil, heavy clay, sand, or compacted soil. It’s found in forests, vineyards, gardens, roadsides, pathways, dirt roads, pastures, and fields.
Broadleaf plantain has large oval or egg-shaped leaves arranged in a low-growing rosette. Each leaf can be up to eight inches long and four inches wide. Each one has five to nine distinct parallel veins beginning at the stalk and radiating out and up to the outer edges of the leaves.
Leaf margins may be entire or wavy.
From the center of the plant emerges brown flowers with a purple stamen on a nine-inch-long spike. This is followed seeds, which line the spike in small, egg-shaped capsules that contain about five orange to brown seeds each.
Flower and seed spikes emerge in spring and continue to grow through late summer.
When the seedlings first emerge, they exhibit two to four elongated cotyledons. These are followed by football-shaped leaves before the mature, oval, or egg-shaped leaves emerge.
While P. major is a perennial, occasionally, it might take on an annual or biennial growth. In perennials, the plants develop a pliable woody stem emerging from tough, fibrous, shallow roots. Annuals and biennials are herbaceous.
At the lower part of the stem, plants grow white adventitious roots, though these aren’t always present.
A majority of the plants that look similar to Plantago major are in the same genus.
Narrow-leaf plantain (P. lanceolata) appears similar in all ways except that the leaves are more narrow. Rugel’s plantain (P. rugelii) has wide leaves and looks like broad-leafed plantain, except that it has reddish stems and black seeds.
The young leaves of some hosta (Hosta spp.) species look similar to mature plantain. If you are foraging, hosta is also edible.
If you identify and remove the plant when it’s young, control is simple. Dig it up, taking care to remove all of the root system, before it begins to flower. As long as you pull it before the plant seeds, it will rarely return.
The low-growing leaves dodge the mower blade, making it difficult to control via mowing.
This plant spreads primarily through seed, and each one can produce up to 20,000 seeds. Once the seeds land, they can lay dormant for up to 60 years, waiting for ideal conditions in which to germinate.
Gardeners may opt to practice the technique of tolerance, which means allowing the plant to grow in unobtrusive areas. Because it can tolerate foot or light vehicular traffic, it can be allowed to grow in footpaths or driveways.
The plant contains lots of healthy alkaloids, flavonoids, phenolic acid derivatives, and terpenoids, which is why foragers value it. However, even if you use the plant in the kitchen, that doesn’t mean you want it in your veggie garden. It can host diseases that infect veggies and ornamentals.
If hand pulling or tolerance won’t work, herbicides can be used.
Mesotrione prevents seed germination, though it won’t kill existing plants. Preemergent herbicides containing isoxaben and indaziflam will kill existing plants. In lawns, use a broadleaf herbicide containing triclopyr.
For areas where a little spot control is required, glyphosate is effective. Keep in mind that glyphosate is indiscriminate and will kill any plant it touches.