Issue 7, July 13, 2020

Plantains Noticeable with Drought

We could use a little rain at my house.  The grass has stopped growing which always gives my husband a little reprieve from this weekly chore.  What does not seem to stop growing however, are certain weeds.  With their tall seed stalks, the plantains are notorious for making an otherwise decent looking lawn appear ragged within a few days.  So out comes the mower just to tidy things up a bit.  Typically, however, I subscribe to the “as long as it’s green who cares” school of thought.  Weeds in a lawn really don’t bother me too much, but I’m not the one doing the mowing at my house. 

The majority of my lawn’s weeds belong to the plantain family (Plantaginaceae) which includes buckhorn plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and broadleaf plantain (P. major).  These cool-season perennials have a similar growth habit and tend to be found in meadows, pastures, waste areas, and lawns.  Buckhorn plantain is common on drier sites, on neutral to basic soils, and in low-quality turf of low to moderate soil fertility.  It can tolerate compacted soils and low mowing heights.  Broadleaf plantain prefers fertile, moist soils but will tolerate some shade, low mowing, low fertility, compacted soils, and dry sites.  In my experience, plantains tend to do very well in dry, compacted areas such as pathways and along edges of driveways.  They can better handle difficult conditions than turfgrass can.  Additionally, I have found first hand that increasing your mowing height can help shade out and kill the plantains. 

There are several differences between these similar species. The leaves of buckhorn plantain are lanceolate (much longer than they are wide), dark green, up to 1 ½ inches wide and 8 inches long.  They are also sharp tipped, prominently parallel veined, and sometimes twisted and curled.  In contrast, the leaves of broadleaf plantain are broadly oval, hairy or smooth, and dark green.  They can be up to 6 inches wide and 10 inches long.  They are prominently parallel veined, and the margins are entire or wavy.  The petioles can be reddish in color.

Buckhorn plantain in flower – photo by Michelle Wiesbrook

Both plants can be found in flower summer long well into the fall.  Buckhorn plantain has many small white to tan flowers that are tightly clustered at the end of a 6 to 30 inch long, hairy stalk.  In contrast, broadleaf plantain produces numerous, inconspicuous flowers that are borne in dense clusters at the upper ends of 8 to 20 inch tall leafless, flowering stalks.  These are similar in appearance to fingers or rat-tails.  Both plants spread by seeds.  Buckhorn plantain has a long sturdy taproot with lateral branches while broadleaf plantain has a short taproot with fibrous roots. 

Broadleaf plantain in flower – photo by Michelle Wiesbrook

Plantains can be controlled without chemicals by simply maintaining turf density and health through proper culture.  Fertilization practices should be evaluated.  Core aerification can be used to alleviate compaction so that turfgrass can better grow and compete with weeds.  Mow as high as the use and appearance will allow to shade out weeds.  This recommendation alone can noticeably reduce plantain populations.  I have seen this first hand over the years in my own yard.  Additionally, plantains can be hand-pulled or mechanically removed.

These hot days of July are not the best time to apply chemical controls as off-target damage to sensitive ornamental plants is too risky.  Instead, use this time to plan your applications for fall, which is actually the best time to control plantains.  Postemergent herbicides should be applied when weeds are growing actively, which would be mid to late fall or even in mid spring to early summer for plantains. The herbicide 2,4-D has shown in the past to provide good control of broadleaf plantain, but control can be variable with buckhorn plantain.  There are however many postemergent herbicides, including 2- and 3-way products that will effectively control plantains.  Preemergent herbicides should be applied before seed germination, which typically occurs in late spring through mid-summer and sporadically in the fall.  When using any herbicide, always read and follow all label directions carefully.

Michelle Wiesbrook

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