What good is that prolific weed that comes up each spring?
Published April 16, 2022, McAllen Monitor
Story and photos by Anita Westervelt, Texas Master Naturalist, South Texas Border Chapter
This is the fun time of year when our annual plants make themselves known. When pink primroses populate patches of land and yellow dandelions bob and wave in the wind.
Along with colorful spring bloomers, less showy plants come up in spring, ones that most people can name but give only a cursory consideration because they don’t seem to bloom or otherwise do much at all.
One such plant is redseed plantain (Plantago rhodosperma). Mostly known as just plantain or Indianwheat, it is one of more than 200 species of Plantaginaceae family plants worldwide.
Redseed plantain naturally occurs throughout much of Texas, the Great Plains and the southwest. It grows from a short taproot, first showing a rosette of broad leaves close to the ground in late winter. Soon, green spikes shoot up through the rosette that can reach to 14 inches in height. The spikes produce blooms, although the flowers are hardly noticeable. Toward the end of April and early May, hundreds of tiny seeds turn the spikes rusty red to reddish black in color.
This mostly ignored plant actually has much value. Redseed plantain is used to revegetate wildlife habitats and rangelands for forage; the foliage is eaten by bobwhite quail, Rio Grande wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, cattle and the Texas tortoise. The seeds are consumed by game birds like scaled quail, bobwhite quail and mourning doves. Redseed plantain also benefits habitats that harbor beneficial insects and butterflies.
As a conservation plant, redseed plantain has been used in erosion control along streams. The fibrous roots help break up compacted soils and help hold it in place.
Historically, plantain species were important to herbalists. The leaves have anti-inflammatory properties. I’ve had high regard for plantains from the time when I watched a long-ago episode of the television show, “Walker, Texas Ranger.” Our hero had suffered a knife wound during a fight and was left to die; Walker regained consciousness, bravely plucked plantain leaves from the Texas landscape, chewed them to release their mucilage and then applied the poultice to the stab wound to prevent infection. That type of topical remedy has been documented, having treated all types of minor wounds, including insect stings and bites, allergic rashes, burns and other cuts and scrapes.
In late winter one year, a lone, healthy specimen of redseed plantain sprouted up through the ground cover on one side of our barn where I have a potting shed. I left the plant to develop as it would and periodically photographed its progress. In early March, I propped a six-inch size-documenting-ruler amongst the rosette; the spikes measured upwards of nine inches and the rosette about eight inches in diameter. By May first, the spikes were seeded out in a rich russet.
Redseed plantain may get only a casual glance, but it deserves respect; when you see one pushing its way through a pavement crack, or along the edge of a driveway or sidewalk, give it a nod and recognize it as a valued member of our Texas habitat.
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Sources helpful in writing this article were USDA National Resources Conservation Service, Wikipedia, foragingtexas.com, gardenerspath.com and backyardnature.net.