- Name also: Rat-tail Plantain, Broadleaf Plantain
- Family: Plantain Family – Plantaginaceae
- Growing form: Perennial herb.
- Height: 5–30 cm (2–12 in.). Stem leafless, with arching base–straight, round–slightly bristly, tough, pliant scape.
- Flower: Corolla regular (actinomorphic), yellowish brown, small, fused, 4-lobed; lobes membranous, with blunt tips, approx. 1 mm (0.04 in.) long. Calyx 4-lobed. Stamens 4, filaments long, anthers initially purple, later brown. Gynoecium fused, a single carpel. Carpels mature before stamens (protogynous). Inflorescence a dense, narrowly cylindrical spike.
- Leaves: In basal rosette, stalked. Blade ovate–elliptic, usually quite round–cordate-based, with entire margins–toothed, virtually glabrous, parallel-veined, thick, dark green.
- Fruit: Elliptic, glossy, greyish, circumscissile capsule.
- Habitat: Yards, lawns, roadsides, banks, paths, fields, pastures, waste ground, shores.
- Flowering time: July–September.
Greater plantain’s rise in Finland and practically everywhere that has a similar climate as one of the most common and abundant plants around inhabited areas is based on its astonishing ability to stand human turmoil. Its thickish, veined leaves can withstand being vigorously trampled, and the flowering stem that holds up the spike is even stronger than the leaves. Greater plantain is otherwise highly adaptable and diverse. The plant is able to cling on in cramped and dry cracks in the pavement or it can grow in verdant gardens with a dinner-plate sized rosette and a hand-span high inflorescence.
Greater plantain creates an amazing amount of seeds, with a single plant producing over 20,000 in a summer, and it spreads equally efficiently with domestic animals, people and vehicles. The surface of the seeds becomes sticky when damp, so they stick easily and unnoticeably to passers-by. Native Americans named the plant after white men’s footprints because it spread throughout America wherever they went. In Finland it is known as ‘iron leaf’, which is probably in honour of its durability. It is also commonly known as ‘plaster leaf’ because it is a handy natural bandage: it softens slightly when it is crumpled, wet with spittle and pressed onto the wound. Infected wounds were earlier treated with greater plantain, whose leaves contain real antibiotics and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Greater plantain’s subspecies ssp. major grows in cultural places and has arrived in Finland with people, perhaps already with the first settlers. There is another species which is totally native to Finland, ssp. intermedia, which grows on coastlines with arching scapes, short spikes and leaves which are toothed at least from the base and altogether narrower than the subspecies that grow in yards.