How to Manage Pests
Pests in Gardens and Landscapes
Broadleaf and buckhorn plantain (Plantago major and P. lanceolata) are two major perennial weeds in California. These weeds can be found in turfgrass, ornamental plantings, gardens, roadsides, and pastures. Both species are found throughout the state and grow year-round, except in the coldest intermountain areas and deserts.
The genus Plantago consists of about 250 species worldwide, with 20 species found in California. Both broadleaf and buckhorn plantain were introduced from Europe. Broadleaf plantain is also known as common plantain and dooryard plantain. Other names for buckhorn plantain include narrow-leaf plantain, ribwort plantain, English plantain, and ribgrass.
Broadleaf plantain commonly occurs in moist areas with full sun or partial shade and compacted soil. It has a tough short crown with fibrous roots attached. The smooth, oval leaf blades are 2 to 7 inches long with several veins that parallel the leaf margins. The leaf veins meet at the base to form a broad petiole (leaf stem). The flowering stalks can reach 15 inches tall, and stalks are topped with a dense spike of small flowers. Seeds are black or brown and 1/16 inch in diameter.
Unlike broadleaf plantain, buckhorn plantain grows best in disturbed sites. It has a taproot and longer, narrower leaves 3 to 12 inches long with parallel veins. The blade merges smoothly into the petiole, which is shorter than that of broadleaf plantain. The plant crown—the growing point at the soil surface—is covered with tan, woolly hairs. The flowering stalks of buckthorn plantain can reach 18 inches tall. As it blooms, stamens protrude from the flower head. Seeds are black, shiny, and about 1/16 inch in diameter.
Plantain seeds germinate at or near the soil surface when soil moisture is adequate and soil temperature reaches 50°F. Ideal germination temperature is around 77°F; however, germination happens more rapidly as temperatures increase. The seedling stage for broadleaf plantain and buckhorn plantain can last 8 to 15 weeks, depending on growing conditions.
Both species produce a fairly weak root system. Plantains grow from the crown area at the soil surface, which allows the plant to persist after defoliation or mowing. Flowering for both plantains begins in May and continues to August or September.
This weed may form dense populations of individual plants that compete with desirable plant species. Established plantains produce seed and vegetative structures that can contaminate equipment and spread to new areas.
In turfgrass, plantains may form dense clumps that damage and reduce usability of athletic fields and golf courses. The texture and color of plantain may also disrupt aesthetic quality of turfgrass.
Broadleaf plantains are better adapted to irrigated areas where management levels involve frequent mowing or grazing. Broadleaf plantain is an indicator weed of alkaline soils (high soil pH) with low fertility and soil compaction. Buckhorn plantains are better adapted to areas with less irrigation and mowing. Buckthorn plantain is an indicator of dry, low fertility soils. However, both can tolerate drought and wide environmental conditions.
Both plantains have no true stems, and the leaves are clustered in a rosette at the base of the plant. Although slow to establish, plantain is difficult to control when mature because of its extensive crown system. Plantain crowns can regenerate new plants, even when cut off at or below the soil surface. Broadleaf plantain can survive for many years and develop a thickened crown 6 to 10 inches across with fibrous roots, while buckhorn plantain has a stout taproot.
Remove any new plantain seedlings and more mature plants before they produce seed. Monitor the area for several months to be sure plantains don’t resprout.
It is difficult to control mature plantain plants when only relying on hand-pulling, digging, or hoeing because of their persistent crowns. Mowing is not an effective control since the leaves lie close to the ground. Repeated removal of plants for several months is most successful in a home garden or lawn. To reduce the spread of plantain and other weeds, clean equipment prior to use in a new area.
Well maintained turfgrass areas will assure a dense, healthy stand. Use best management practices such as thatch reduction, appropriate irrigation, and proper mowing height for the desired turf species.
No single procedure has been successful in controlling plantain in turfgrass. Early removal of new seedlings is successful when practiced diligently. Digging out perennial plantain plants must be done regularly for several years to be successful. Once these weeds are eradicated, areas should be renovated and managed to establish a healthy turfgrass sward.
Preemergence herbicides that limit germination of plantain in turfgrass are those with the active ingredients atrazine, indaziflam, isoxaben, and mesotrione. Repeated applications of postemergence broadleaf herbicides can control plantain seedlings. However, control of mature plants with herbicides is difficult; products with 2,4-D work best.
Additional postemergence herbicide options include bromoxynil, carfentrazone, dicamba, mesotrione, penoxsulam, and sulfentrazone. Quinclorac provides fair control of buckthorn plantain and poor control on broadleaf plantain. Clopyralid herbicides require the highest label rate for broadleaf plantain control.
Products with bispyribac-sodium, chlorosulfuron, fluroxypyr, triclopyr, MCPA, and mecoprop will only suppress, but not kill, the weed. Combinations of active ingredients can improve control. The best postemergence control is achieved from a fall herbicide application and repeat applications may be needed to kill weakened perennial weeds and new germinating seedlings. Herbicide options are summarized in Table 1.
Prevention is important, since few options exist to control plantain in ornamental plantings. Pull weeds or spot treat with herbicides periodically during the year. Be aware that plantain regrowth from the crown system can limit effectiveness of this method.
Mulch with landscape fabrics to control seedlings of both species. Overlap fabric so light cannot reach the soil surface. Use a polypropylene or polyester fabric or black polyethylene (plastic tarp) to block weed growth, then cover fabric with mulch to improve aesthetics.
Organic mulches alone may control plantain seedlings if applied at 2 to 4 inches deep (depth varies with mulch texture). Because mulches degrade over time, reapply as necessary. Regularly inspect and hand weed ornamental areas.
Preemergence herbicides to limit the growth of plantain seedlings in ornamental planting areas include isoxaben, flumioxazin, and indaziflam.
Postemergence spot treatment with nonselective, systemic herbicides like glyphosate can control plantains in established ornamental plantings. Nonselective, contact herbicides like diquat, glufosinate, pelargonic acid, and products containing acetic acids, fatty acids, or plant oils can kill small seedlings, but will only damage the aboveground parts of more mature weeds. Use nonselective herbicides with care to prevent drift or overspray onto desirable plants. Herbicide options are summarized in Table 1. Note that some products are available to the general public and others are only available to licensed landscape professionals.
Blom CW. 1978. Germination, seedling emergence and establishment of some Plantago species under laboratory and field conditions. Acta Botanica Neerlandica 27:257-271.
Hawthorn WR. 1974. The biology of Canadian weeds. 4. Plantago major and P. rugelii. Can. J. Plant Sci. 54:383-396.
Patton A, Weisenberger D, eds. 2017. Turfgrass Weed Control for Professionals. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University.
Whitson TD, ed. 2012. Weeds of the West. Jackson, WY: University of Wyoming.
AUTHOR: Maggie Reiter, UCCE Fresno County.
TECHNICAL EDITOR: K Windbiel-Rojas
Suggested citation: Reiter M. 2020. UC IPM Pest Notes: Plantains. UC ANR Publication 7478. Oakland, CA.
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