John Stewart Collis, mid century biographer, inadvertent nature writer and all-round champion of the understated and overlooked, began a chapter in one of my favourite books with; ‘I am anxious to say a word about the potato’. In turn, I am anxious to say a word about the (similarly ordinary) plantain.
Much like potatoes, plantains are common as muck. In Britain they’re found more or less anywhere, from a coastal cliff to a city rubbish dump. They’re in fields and meadows, hedgerows and riverbanks, roadside verges and, weed-kill as some might, they’re a stubborn fixture in the manicured lawns of suburban gardens. Alongside dandelions and thistles, the plantain is the pinup of choice for grotesque herbicide adverts; their rosetted leaves depicted in shrivelling submission at the hand of a hassle-free poison. A familiar nuisance to many, also an encouraged resident to a few. They are the bushcrafter’s survival plant and herbalist’s trusted ally. They are a host plant for the larvae of Painted Lady butterflies and the fodder of choice for free-grazing cattle. Recently, some childhood muscle memory long unpractised prompted me, on a sunny afternoon on Blackheath, to pick a plantain stem, twist it back on itself and ‘pop gun’ the flower head into the air. It was an unthinking and instinctive action, triggered perhaps by a nostalgia in the sight of plantains en masse and ‘en fleur’ across a sunlit, mowed field.
These were ‘ribwort’ plantains (Plantago lanceolata), long-leafed and dense at the base, with a tall, thin stem and oval inflorescence. As with the other two of Britain’s grassland plantains, the ribwort’s narrow, cylindrical inflorescence is made up of many individual flowers. But these are easily (and forgivably) overlooked; swallowed by the dull brown of its otherwise unremarkable flower spike. Greater plantain (Plantago major), the second of the three, is much the same in character, only fatter of leaf and with even less striking, elongated flowers. But the third, Plantago media, is something really rather beautiful. Hoary plantain, as the plant is known colloquially, draws only the finer qualities from its plantago genus pool: elegantly splayed leaves, a slender stem and a sizeable, pinky-white flowered spike. The only trouble is finding it, as, unlike plantains 1 and 2, Plantago media won’t just grow anywhere. As a fellow enthusiast remarked recently; it’s not that the plant is rare, it just doesn’t like crowds.
Record producers often relate that they cannot listen to a song without also hearing the intricacies of its production. Similarly, photographers struggle to view a photograph without scrutinising its lighting and composition. As a gardener, I find separating a landscape from its individual horticultural components more and more of a challenge, as was the case a few weeks ago on a work trip in Croatia. Although trees were the focus of this particular visit, the stunning range of wildflowers abounding within the country’s diverse topography was an unsurmountable distraction, most notably among them, the hoary plantain.
Unknowingly, I have more than likely encountered these dainty, persicaria-like plantains before. However, they were a surprise encounter when stumbled upon in Croatia’s hillside meadows, assumed at first to be an unfamiliar Southern Europe native. Throughout the trip I’d spot them, often high up, overlooking the Plitvice Lakes or populating the glades outside beech and fir woods. They thrived among low-grass regulars like yellow-rattle and clover; stunningly attractive when lit up by a retreating evening sun. But in learning later of P. media’s wider European range and preferred sight and soil, it became clear that their abundance in this Croatian hotspot was owed less to the country’s climate than to the chalky constitution of that particular region. Hoary plantain loves a calcareous substrate; and as with many like-minded flowers, its distribution is restricted by this soil-culture preference.
In these moments, when stumbling upon plants proliferating in a specific territory, I am gratefully reminded of the diverse particularities that dictate their existence. We live in a well travelled world and globalisation has led plants to travel in equal measure. As high street garden centres offer an increasingly transcontinental stock list (and exotic plants become more and more familiar) it’s easy to forget where certain plants originate, and with that, the details of their environmental provenance. Few plants will grow anywhere, nor can they be forced to do so. And therefore, to some extent, perhaps a landscape is as much a part of a flower as the petals that attract our attention; and a flower cannot, or should not, be divorced from its natural surroundings. Accepting the environmental constrains of a plant’s origin and habitat is at the core of ‘naturalistic’ gardening--a horticultural trend continuing to rise in popularity. And rather than hamper horticultural imagination and creativity, an understanding of these constraints may instead be turned to an advantage. It is very well to obey the specifications on a planting label, but a sense of a plant’s heritage will go that much further to ensure a longer lifespan. After all, healthy plants make a healthy landscape, and one that will ultimately depend less on human intervention and maintenance.
In Croatia’s ranging topography I came by areas thick with wild smoke bush (Cotinus cogygria), and groupings of delicate nigella (N. damascena) spread across scrag and rock. These are a joy to witness in a natural setting, as they are in the many British gardens in which they are now cultivated. But I needn’t have travelled to the Balkan Peninsula in order to see a hoary plantain. Next time I’m passing through the chalk downlands of Southern England in spring, I’ll keep an eye out for its captivating pink spires, now that I know where to look.
Words by Matt Collins, photography by Roo Lewis