Weedy Wednesday - Plantain
There are two plantains in the garden – the Ribwort and the Greater. Both are found in lawns and paths, and both are perennial weeds with strong roots. But did you know they are also a useful herb?
In this weekly series, we take a quick look at common garden weeds. How they grow, what benefits they bring to the garden, and how to manage them. Organic growers recognise the importance of these native plants. Insects and birds need the flowers and seeds – and gardeners, cooks and herbalists can harvest some nutrient rich foliage.
We hope that this snap-shot view of bindweed, dandelion, nettle, bramble, thistle, goosegrass, plantain, fat hen, dock and yes, even ground elder, will help you to live with them. We also give advice on how to compost weeds. You may not love them, but you certainly won't be tempted to reach for the toxic weed-killer.
Greater Plantain Plantago major
What: Also known as Common Plantain, Rat-tail and Waybread, this broad leaved native plant is a tough weed, resistant to drought and flooding. The young leaves are edible, although the flower stem does bear an unhappy resemblance to a rat’s tail!
Habit: Greater Plantain forms many strong roots that anchor the plant securely. On paths, where the plant may be trodden on, it has small prostrate leaves with a growing point just below soil level. But on untrodden ground the leaves are semi-erect and the growing point is at soil level. After surviving the winter, both roots and shoots grow throughout the summer. Plants can flower and set seed just 6 weeks after germination - an average plant producing 14,000 seeds per year. Indeed the plant usually reproduces by seed, not from the roots.
Benefits: Greater Plantain has a number of uses: the leaves can be eaten when young (they contain small amounts of calcium and vitamin A); herbalists also use the leaves to stem bleeding in small wounds, as well as to soothe insect bites and stings (it’s the plaintain, not the dock, that might help with nettle stings); and the fibres are tough enough to make cord.
Controls: the best way to get rid of plantain is to pull it out. In lawns, the low lying rosettes will survive mowing. Remove plants before setting seed.
Ribwort Plantain Plantago lanceolata
What: This common weed found in grass, is also known as black plantain, tinker-tailor grass and windless. It is relatively drought resistant, and has been used by farmers for pasture improvement on hills, especially as sheep find it very palatable.
Habit: Like its cousin, plantago major, the leaf rosettes are low lying if regularly trampled on, but usually they are tall and erect, with long thin leaves. The flower stems stand erect, with easily recognisable heads, initially black, but which develop a ring of many small pale flowers. They need the wind and insects to pollinate. Seeds germinate either the same year or in the following Spring. Ribwort Plantain can reproduce by seed, or through root buds or fragments. Individual plants may live for up to 12 years.
Benefits: A tea or syrup from the leaves is used as a cough medicine. A poultice may also relieve stings and skin irritations. The flower stalks are tough and flexible enough to tie.
Controls: It is best to dig this plant out, before seeds have formed.