Broadleaf plantain (Plantago major), also called greater plantain, is a very common perennial lawn weed. It’s most often found in compacted soil, scalped lawns or spots where the lawn is especially thin. Once it starts to grow, it will shade out the grass plants around it, thanks to its leathery spoon-shaped leaves, which form a dense rosette from 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) across. Besides lawns, you’ll find it in cracks in pavement and sidewalks and growing in between paving stones and, in fact, in bare spots everywhere.
Although originally from Eurasia, broadleaf plantain is now widely disseminated throughout the world.
Its cousin, narrowleaf or ribwort plantain (P. lanceolate), also from Eurasia, is also now a common weed in many areas as well and the information about broadleaf plantain also applies to it.
Broadleaf plantain was one of the first weeds to reach North America. It was accidentally introduced at the very beginning of European colonization, showing up wherever forests were cut back to create farmland. As a result, Amerindians called it “white man’s foot,” as it appeared wherever Europeans settled.
Do You Really Need to Control It?
Personally, I don’t consider plantain a major lawn problem and so don’t try to control it. From my point of view, a lawn can be made up of any mixture of plants that stay short when you mow them and if that mix contains plantain, that’s fine with me. I only remove plants that are prickly (so I can walk barefoot on my lawn). Even so, I quite understand that, for some people, a perfect lawn essentially composed of grasses important. So if that’s your case, read on!
No Rhizomes, Only Seeds
The good news is that, unlike many lawn weeds, plantain doesn’t produce creeping rhizomes and thus offsets that pop up everywhere: it only spreads through seeds. So, if you mow regularly, you’ll likely cut off its flower stalks before their seeds can mature. Therefore simply mowing is an excellent way of preventing plantain from spreading. Of course, its seeds can also be carried by the wind or birds from unmown plants nearby, but at least mowing does somewhat reduce its invasiveness.
Also, if you keep the soil in your lawn in top condition—rich, loose and properly drained—, lawn grasses will grow densely and plantain, which will only germinate in bare spots, will have little luck spreading.
The fact is that if your lawn is spotted with plantains, you don’t have a plantain problem, you have a soil problem! It may be wise to have a soil test done to help understand why your lawn is doing so poorly. Perhaps the soil is too acidic for lawn grasses, for example. (Plantain tolerates acidic soils better than grasses, but isn’t limited to acid conditions, easily growing in both acid and alkaline soils.)
However, if plantain is abundant, the usual cause is that the soil is too compact … and you don’t need to test for that. When the soil under your lawn is as hard as rock, you’ll feel it when you walk on it! Plantain positively thrives in hard clay soils or spots compacted by parked vehicles or constant foot traffic.
The best solution for compact soils is to improve them by topdressing with compost. True enough, soil aeration can help, but only temporarily. If you only aerate the soil and leave the plugs of hardened soil lying on the lawn, the clayey soil particles will soon work their way back into the aeration holes and you’ll be back where you started. If you follow aeration with topdressing, however, that will fill the holes with compost rather than clay and the effect be much more effective.
On the other hand, if your lawn’s soil is just about as hard as concrete and you seriously want to improve its overall quality while keeping plantain and other weeds out, the only logical solution is to start over with a new lawn. Cover the soil with 6 inches (15 cm) layer of quality topsoil and either resow with quality lawn seed or put down new turf.
Hand Pulling Is Often Sufficient
If there are only a few plantains in your lawn, the easiest solution is simply to pull them out. Wait until after a good rain or until after you’ve watered, as this loosens the soil slightly, making it easier to pull the plant out, then crouch down with a dandelion weeder (or a flat head screwdriver) and, using it as a lever, work the plant out of the soil.
Plantain roots are particularly hard to pull and you often have to pry them loose, but you should be able to get the base of the plant out of the ground and if so, you’ve won the battle. Unlike dandelions, plantain will not regrow from pieces of root left in the soil.
You haven’t finished yet, though. Apply a little compost to the hole left when you pulled the plantain and sow a pinch or so of grass seed on top of the compost. If you don’t do this, it’s likely that plantain seeds or other weed seeds will sprout to fill in the empty spots. By overseeding with lawn seed, you’ll be ensuring that lawn grass will fill in the blanks.
Mow High for Healthy Turf
To help prevent plantain from coming back, mow the lawn high (to about 3 inches/8 cm) rather than scalping it. Taller grass leaves shade the ground, which is not all a good environment for plantain seedlings nor indeed other weeds.
Leaving grass clippings on the lawn after you mow will also discourage plantain seeds from germinating.
What About Weed Killers?
Plantain is relatively resistant to lawn weed killers (herbicides), whether chemical or organic, that is, the ones that are designed to kill broadleaf weeds without harming lawn grasses. And in many areas, lawn herbicides have been banished anyway, so they really aren’t a solution.
Total kill weed killers, the ones that kill everything that grows, such as citric acid (organic) or RoundUp (synthetic), will kill the plantain but also your lawn! You could try spot treatments, but many people find they do more harm than good when they use this kind of herbicide on a lawn.
Use Plantain Instead of Destroying It
One gardener’s weed can be another’s delight … and plantain is a good example of that, as it can be a highly useful plant.
The young leaves are edible, for example, and rich in minerals and vitamins, and the medicinal uses of plantain are numerous. Traditionally, for example, plantain leaf poultices were used to stop bleeding and help wounds heal, but it also has many other uses. It’s also used as an anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antioxidant, cough suppressant, diuretic, expectorant, sedative, antibiotic and much more. I won’t go any further into medical uses, as I’m neither a doctor nor a herbalist, but you’ll find several plantain-based products on the market.
Here, however, is one simple home treatment that can do no harm and might do a world of good: when you suffer from insect bites or nettle stings, crush a plantain leaf and rub it on the wound. You’ll feel almost instant relief.
Also, there are ornamental varieties of plantain you might want to try in the flower bed: plantains with red leaves, variegated leaves, undulating leaves, unusual flowers and much more. None of these are easy to find, but they are available, often from seed companies specializing in unusual perennials.
So there you go: plantain may an enemy to lawns, but it can also be your friend!