Greater plantain (Plantago major)

Also known as: rats' tails, way bread
GenusPlantago (1)
SizeFlower spike: 10 – 15 cm (2)
Leaf length: 5 – 15 cm (2)

Not threatened (3).

Greater plantain Plantago major is a familiar plant that forms a rosette of dark green leaves that lie close to the ground. The flowers are borne on a narrow spike, earning the species the alternative name of ‘rats’ tails’ (4). A subspecies (Plantago major intermedia) was described in Britain in 1958 (3). This subspecies tends to be a smaller plant, with fewer veins on the leaves (2), however its morphological characteristics are not yet clear, and more work in this area is required (3).

Evidence of this native species has been found in pre-Neolithic deposits (1). It is very common and widespread in Britain and is also found throughout mainland Europe, in north Africa, northern and central Asia. It has become naturalised in most temperate parts of the world (2). Subspeciesintermedia has been widely under-recorded and has a much smaller range (3).

Found in open habitats and typically occurs on tracks and paths subject to trampling, disturbed roadsides, field edges, and grasslands (3). The subspeciesintermedia is usually found in saline habitats, such as the upper sections of saltmarsh and close to coastal creeks (3).

This perennial herb flowers from May to October (1), and is pollinated by wind (2). A single plant can produce as many as 15,000 seeds (1).

This ubiquitous plant was called ‘English man’s foot’ by the Native Americans of New England as it seemed to crop up in the very footsteps of the settlers (5). The leaves are very resistant to trampling, and as a result they were thought to heal bruises and wounds caused by crushing (4). They were also used to treat ulcers and sores (5). Under the name ‘way-bread’ it was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Anglo-Saxons. In fact the leaves do actually contain tannins and certain astringent substances that soothe cuts and nettle stings (4), and they are still used in parts of Shetland for burns and wounds (5).

This species is not threatened at present.

Conservation action is not required for this common species.

For more on British native plants and for details of how to get involved in plant conservation visit the website of Plantlife, the wild plant charity:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. National Biodiversity Network Species Dictionary (September 2003):
  2. Clapham, A.R., Tutin, T.G., and Moore, D.M. (1987) Flora of the British Isles 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  3. Preston, C.D., Pearman, D.A. and Dines, T.D. (2002) New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Oxford University Press, Oxford
  4. Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson, London.
  5. Grigson, G. (1996) The Englishman’s Flora. Helicon Publishing, Ltd., Oxford.