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FLORA: Plantains have it all!

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

After recently seeing some handsome specimens of common plantain, Plantago major, up in the Carolina mountains, I was happy to arrive home to find my own wild population showing off impressively in spite of the harsh hot and dry conditions.

PHOTO BY KEN MOORE. A green planthopper investigates a plantain flower spike.

I usually review what others have had to say about my “plant of the week” before I add my observations. I’m happy that this week’s plant is included in my favorite reference, Tom Brown’s Guide to Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants by well-known wilderness survival teacher Tom Brown Jr.

In Tom’s words: “Plantain is a lover of lawns, gardens, roadsides and fields. Leaves of the common plantain are in basal rosettes, found low to the ground. The leaves are roundish, heavily ribbed and very broad with flattened stems. It flowers from summer to mid-fall. The greenish-white tiny flowers are found along leafless stems. One or more species of plantain is found throughout the United States.”

Indeed, those flowers are tiny. Even with your trusty hand lens, a closer look will barely let you discern those minuscule tubular flowers from which extend the more visible white anthers.

While taking my closer look, I was joined by a beautiful green planthopper that also seemed to be having a closer look at the green flower spike. So often, visiting pollinators, or just curious insect visitors, are every bit as engaging to the observer as the plant or flower. The cool green beauty and casual attitude of the planthopper was a pleasant surprise.

Considered by most a ubiquitous weed, plantain is sometimes called whiteman’s-foot, thought to have arrived in America on the feet of European settlers. Some taxonomists, however, consider that it may be native to the northeastern U.S. Regardless, it is everywhere, and maligned throughout as a weed.

I return to Tom Brown. His mentor, Grandfather, was a wise Apache elder who absorbed the valued lessons of all cultures. Referring to a discussion he had with Grandfather as to why people refer to plants as weeds, Tom writes: “To me, it is an alien term, because every plant I knew had some use or another. Some of them were very critical to survival conditions and I could not have made it through many an outing without them. Grandfather said most people’s feet are removed from the soil and the wisdom of their ancient ancestors. Because of cultivated crops and other customs, many plants and animals have little or no use to modern man, which is why he is so apt to destroy them without a second thought.

“Plants are edible, medicinal or utilitarian in some way. Grandfather stated emphatically that even if we did not know the use of a plant, we should consider its importance to the overall plan of the natural world. Nothing has been put on this Earth without a very definite purpose.”

Early on, Grandfather had learned to prize plantains for both food and medicine, and he taught young Tom many uses, from the nourishing values of leaves and seeds to the almost legendary medicinal properties of leaves, roots and seeds. To the Navajo, plantain was the “life medicine.” Wisdom helps us view a lawn of plantain as an asset.

I now have an additional enthusiasm for plantains. Several years ago, I noticed that some of my robustly growing plantains somewhat resembled the revered horticultural hostas. Knowing how gardeners are in constant battle with the hosta-loving deer, I decided that I would adopt these deer-proof hosta look-alikes as prized specimens. In the next day or two, I’m going to pot up a few to grow as foliage plants on the deck. I imagine that with extra water and compost, I’ll have specimen plants that will be the envy of west Carrboro.

Email Ken Moore at flora@carrborocitizen.com.

Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.

PHOTO BY KEN MOORE. Consider common plantain a deer-proof hosta look-alike.

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