My first encounter with plantain occurred when I was a kid in Pennsylvania. I had a brown pet rabbit, remarkably named “Brownie.” My mom explained how rabbits loved plantain leaves. She plucked some from the lawn and showed me how to guide a leaf—stem end first—into the rabbit’s constantly munching mouth. It was so cool! The leaf pleated into ruffles and disappeared like a tree limb in a shredder.
To this day, whenever I see the broad leaves of common plantain, Plantago major, I think of rabbits. Lately, though, I’ve been spotting bees all over the lance-leaved species that grows here in western Washington, Plantago lanceolata. The flowers are tiny, brown, and barely visible, with white anthers on a nondescript flower spike. I’ve seen honey bees and fat bumbles land on these spikes, bending the anthers to the ground, one after another.
Plantain is a bee favorite
I never gave plantain much thought as bee forage until I read a research paper about a new method of identifying bee-collected pollen.1 Looking at the tables, I was struck by how often Plantago pollen was found in the pollen loads of honey bees in both rural and urban environments of Ohio. The number of samples from plants in the Plantaginaceae family was just shy of the more commonly known forage favorites in the legume (Fabaceae) and aster (Asteraceae) families.
Apparently, beekeepers have known this for a long time. According to Honey Plants of North America (1926) plantain species supply no nectar but are a popular source of pollen. The book describes honey bee behavior at the plant: “Hovering in the air, the bee moistens the pollen with nectar gathered elsewhere and then brushes it off the anther with the tarsal brushes of the forefeet.”
You can find plantain everywhere
Although dozens of species of plantain exist worldwide, these two are very common across North America. Both are introduced and easily colonize lawn, pasture, roadsides, and parking lots. The broad-leaved type, often called common plantain, is rumored to have been introduced by early colonists. The lance-leaved type is often called ribwort because of the prominent ribs in its leaves.
Surfing around, I learned that some of the seed suppliers sell plantain seeds. This surprised me. Since plantain is everywhere, I can’t quite imagine the need to buy it. The reasoning seems to be that the plants have medicinal value, but more importantly, it is sometimes grown as animal feed. The deep roots make it drought-tolerant, so it is often the only green thing thriving in an otherwise heat-stressed, drought-stressed environment.
Common plantain is a perennial found in USDA zones 3-9. It is tolerant of many soil types and will accept full sun to partial shade. The flowers are tiny and green, arising on spikes that reach about 12 inches high. Although bitter, the leaves are edible by humans and butterfly larvae as well as rabbits. Birds eat the dry seeds, and apparently, bees like the pollen.
Ribwort, known as lance-leaved or English plantain, is similar but prefers USDA zone 4-8 in full sun to partial shade. It grows in soil that nothing else loves, especially dry, heavy soils with clay. The flower spikes reach about 18-24 inches, blooming from spring until fall.
Here in western Washington, I have seen both types, but the lance-leaved type is more common. Although I can’t find my pictures at the moment, I know I’ve photographed bees on these plants, both honey bees and wild bees. I always thought it was weird because the flowers are so tiny you wouldn’t think they were useful. Also, the flowers on the lance-leaved variety look like they are past their prime. But brown is simply their natural color, which is deceiving, especially from a distance.
My goal for the coming year is to photograph the bees I find on plantain to see who is showing up for the feast. It’s often true that the smallest flowers make the biggest impact on bees, so I’m eager to learn more about this surprising weed.
Honey Bee Suite
- Richardson RT, Eaton TD, Lin C-H, Cherry G, Johnson RM, Sponsler DB. Application of plant metabarcoding to identify diverse honey bee pollen forage along an urban-agricultural gradient. Mol Ecol. 2021;30:310-323. https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.15704
After she read that I couldn’t find my photos, Lisa Robinson, send along some photos she took of bumble bees on plantain in eastern Washington. She wrote:
We went up to Sullivan Lake which has an airport in the middle of the state park. A ranger planted an area with astragalus, yellow clover, and some other things. There were Bombus occidentalis and Bombus mixtus in the plantain in the lawn instead of the pollinator patch.
They were hard to photograph because of the bouncing of the flowers and the way the bees worked around and around each one, like a large moon orbiting the flower sideways. Looking over these, I could see they were often above the flowers with exposed anthers, but you said they weren’t nectaring, right? I’m going to look [more carefully] to see what they were doing…
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