Dwarf Plantain
Plantago virginica
Plantain family (Plantaginaceae)

Description: This plant is a winter annual. It consists of a small rosette of basal leaves, from which one or more flowering spikes develop. The basal leaves are up to 6" long and 3" across, although they are more typically about one-half this size. They can assume various shapes, including oblanceolate, obovate, and oval. The medium green leaves have 3-5 parallel veins, smooth and ciliate margins, and blunt tips; they taper gradually to winged petioles, which are often reddish. The upper surface of each leaf has white hairs, while the lower surface is woolly pubescent with longer white hairs along the veins.

The flowering stalks are about 4-8" tall and unbranched. The upper two-thirds of each stalk consists of a cylindrical floral spike that is densely covered with small flowers and their bracts, while the lower one-third is naked (lacking bracts or cauline leaves). The naked portion of each stalk is terete, densely hairy, and often reddish toward the bottom. The flowers are unisexual, bisexual, or sterile. Each flower is about 1/8" long; it has a narrow corolla with 4 erect lobes and a calyx with 4 sepals. The chaffy corolla becomes tan or brown with maturity, while the sepals are green and hairy. The bracts of the flowers are green and hairy like the sepals, except they are even smaller in size. The blooming period occurs from mid-spring to early summer. The flowers are wind-pollinated. Each fertile flower is replaced by an oblongoid seed capsule that splits open around the middle to release its seeds. The root system consists of a taproot. This plant spreads by reseeding itself.

Cultivation: Full sun, mesic to dry conditions, and sandy or rocky soil are preferred. Because this species is a winter annual, seeds should be planted during the late summer or early fall.

Range & Habitat: The native Dwarf Plantain is occasional to locally common in southern and central Illinois, and often absent in northern Illinois (see Distribution Map); it tends to be more common in sandy areas of the state. Habitats include dry sand prairies, hill prairies, cliffs, rocky glades, barren slopes, gravelly areas along railroads and roadsides, sandy fields, and waste areas. This species is usually found in disturbed areas with scant vegetation.

Faunal Associations: Insects that feed on plantains include Dibolia borealis (Northern Plantain Flea Beetle) and Strigoderma arboricola (False Japanese Beetle, or Sandhill Chafer). The adults of the flea beetle chew small holes in the leaves, while its larvae are leaf-miners. Sometimes the adults of the False Japanese Beetle can be found on the floral spikes of plantains in sandy fields, where they feed on the flowers and buds. The caterpillars of the butterfly Junonia coenia (Buckeye) and the caterpillars of several species of moths also feed on plantains (see Moth Table); Tiger Moths (Arctiidae) are particularly well-represented in this group. The seeds of plantains are eaten by the Grasshopper Sparrow and possibly other granivorous songbirds. Both tree squirrels and ground squirrels eat the flowering spikes to some extent, while rabbits eat both the spikes and leaves. The Deer Mouse eats the seeds of plantains and many other plants.

Photographic Location: A sandy field in Vermilion County, Illinois.

Comments: This little plant is one of the native Plantago spp. (plantains). It doesn't invade lawns or become a significant nuisance unless the ground is sandy or gravelly. The basal leaves of Dwarf Plantain are less wide than those of Plantago rugelii (Black-Seeded Plantain) and Plantago major (Common Plantain); these latter two species are common weeds in lawns and paths. In sharp contrast to Dwarf Plantain, they have hairless leaves and flowering stalks. Several other plantains in Illinois have leaves that are more narrow than those of Dwarf Plantain; species in this group include Plantago aristata (Bracted Plantain), Plantago patagonica (Woolly Plantain), and Plantago pusilla (Small Plantain). Like Dwarf Plantain, these are native annuals that prefer dry sunny areas with sterile soil. They differ from each other primarily in the characteristics of their flowers and bracts.