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The prolific English plantain

  • The flower of the English plantain is small and difficult to appreciate while standing. Get down and take a look and you will almost certainly see something interesting, like this hoverfly. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson


Thursday, August 09, 2018

Every year the owners of property face a choice: to mow, or not to mow.

If you live in a picturesque neighborhood, or if you own a business, then the choice is pretty simple. You get out the mower and let ‘er rip. I completely understand. However, if you live in a rural area, or if your property is vast and somewhat isolated from view, the choice can be more interesting. Mowing has its advantages, but something can be said for not mowing as well.

My property is in one of those rural settings. The minimum lot size is 5 acres and there is only one road within a mile of my house in either direction. Personally, I think the area is quite picturesque, especially on foggy mornings in the summer and fall. Most of my land is in meadow, old field, or first regeneration forest, but I bet I’ve got over an acre of land to mow … if I feel like it. Sometimes I give my mowing schedule a lot of thought.

Lawn is an amazing ecosystem if you just let it go wild. Grass is an interesting plant, but the other species that colonize the lawn can be numerous, interesting and quite beautiful. The standouts in my lawn areas are maiden pink, birdsfoot trefoil, clovers (red and white varieties), heal all, Queen Anne’s lace, hawkweed, and chicory. But there is one other plant that almost seems to have the ability to hide in plain sight. The plant I’m speaking of is the English plantain (Plantago lanceolata).

As with many plants that aren’t either edible, or grass, humans characterize the English plantain as a “weed.” My trusty Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide describes this species as being a, “Very common and troublesome weed of lawns and fields.” Then you notice the small asterisk after the species’ scientific name and the irony of humanity comes into view.

We mow lawns in a part of the world that would be forest if given even the slightest respite from human activity. If all mowing stopped today there would be a significant increase in forested area in 20 years, and (I imagine) an almost full reclamation within 100 years. Granted the “forest” would be quite young, but it would still be forest.

So the existence of lawns is the product of the stubborn human will. It is only the tenacity of our species that allows a lawn to last for more than a month or so. Leave your lawn unmowed for more than a month and it’s more of a field than a lawn. Anyone who has fallen behind because of the rainy weather will know exactly what I’m saying. “Lawn” is a ephemeral and fragile thing.

Bitter though our complaints about common and troublesome weeds may be, we cannot yell too loudly without looking in the mirror. This is because that asterisk next to the English plantain’s scientific name means that it is an “alien” species that was brought here by … wait for it … humans. We took an area devoid of lawns and troublesome weeds and we turned it into an area with lawns and troublesome weeds, and then we complained about it.

Anyway, now that my rant is over, let’s look at the English plantain more carefully. Odds are that anyone who has been alive for more that 10 years has seen this species. It usually grows in lawns that have not been chemically treated, but it is seldom noticed because it just blends in so well. Let the lawn grow for a while, however, and things develop quickly.

The English plantain has lance-shaped leaves (hence the name lanceolata?) that are smooth on their edges and have 3 to 5 deep veins running the length of each leaf. The real indicator of their presence, however, is their flowers. These are small, cone-shaped structures of an unremarkable off-white color, but they are located at the end of a slender stem about 8 to 10 inches tall and roughly the same diameter as a wire coat hanger. Especially in August, when it can be quite dry, lawns left unmowed don’t see much grass growth, but these flowers spring up all over the place.

This can give the lawn an scruffy, unkempt appearance, but if you get close to the flowers you will see that they are bustling with activity. I got down on the ground and had a look form myself and found a whirlwind of hoverflies (Syrphidae family … please don’t ask me anything else because there are over 6,000 species worldwide) zipping all over the place.

These flies are miniscule, but very interesting. Like all flies they beat their wings very quickly, but unlike all flies they can hover in midair like a hummingbird. They protect themselves by trying to look like bees (hence the black-and-yellow stripes), but they are so small I cannot imagine what predators might go after them. Even more interesting is the fact that the larvae of hoverflies feed on aphids. So if you are a gardener, you may actually benefit from allowing certain “weeds” to grow because they attract insects that will help to protect your other plants. Mind blown?

It can’t rain forever and sooner or later we will have another chance to get outside and enjoy ourselves. If you find yourself weeding or mowing, consider taking a stroll through your property to see if you can locate an English plantain plant. If you’re willing to get down to the flower’s level you may be amazed by what you see.


Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 21 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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