Black-Seeded Plantain
Plantago rugelii
Plantain family (Plantaginaceae)

Description: This is a herbaceous perennial plant that consists of a low-growing rosette of basal leaves, from which flowering scapes up to 10" tall emerge from the center. The basal leaves are up to 6" long and 4" across, and have long petioles. They are oval, parallel-veined, hairless, and have smooth margins that occasionally undulate. The petioles near the base of the rosette are light purple on some plants. The flowering scapes are unbranched and narrowly cylindrical. Each scape consists of a rather dense spike of tiny green flowers and their bracts. Each flower is less than 1/8" (3 mm.) long and consists of 4 sepals, which are surrounded by lanceolate bracts.

The blooming period usually occurs during the summer, and sometimes later if there is a major disturbance that prevents development of the flowering scapes. Pollination is by wind, rather than insects. The flowers rapidly turn brown, and are replaced by elongated seed capsules that are shaped like a tiny narrow acorn. They split open to below the middle by a lid, releasing 2-9 seeds each. The seeds are black, oval and slightly angular, with a tiny indentation in the middle of one side. There is no reticulation on the surface. These seeds become sticky when wet, and can attach themselves to blowing leaves and other passing objects. The root system is quite branched and coarsely fibrous.

Cultivation: The preference is full or partial sun, and moist to mesic conditions in fertile, loamy soil. Soil with a high clay or gravel content is readily tolerated, but will stunt the growth of the plants. The leaves will wilt during a drought, but this is rarely lethal. Black-Seeded Plantain readily reseeds itself, and can spread to locations where it is undesired. The seeds can remain viable in the ground for several years, if not decades.

Range & Habitat: This common native plant occurs throughout Illinois (see Distribution Map). It can be found occasionally in open disturbed areas of prairies, sometimes as an invader from more developed sites, such as lawns. Other natural habitats include disturbed areas of meadows in woodlands, woodland borders, and clay banks along streams. In more developed areas, where this plant is ubiquitous, it can be found in lawns, gardens, and vacant lots, or areas along roadsides, railroads, sidewalks, gravelly driveways and alleys. Black-seeded Plantain thrives on disturbance, and it cannot tolerate much competition from taller plants with highly developed root systems.

Faunal Associations: Various small animals help to distribute the seeds under wet conditions, which can cling to their feet or fur coats. Rabbits, groundhogs, and deer eat the leaves and flowering stems. Squirrels eat the seed capsules occasionally, including the Fox Squirrel, Gray Squirrel, and the uncommon Franklin's Ground Squirrel. Some birds also eat the seeds, including the Cardinal and Grasshopper Sparrow. The caterpillars of several species of moths (see Moth Table) and the attractive butterfly, Junonia coenia (Buckeye), feed on the foliage of this and other plantains.

Photographic Location: The photographs were taken along a gravel driveway in Urbana, Illinois.

Comments: This plant closely resembles Common Plantain (Plantago major) from Eurasia. Black-Seeded Plantain (Plantago rugelii) differs from the latter species by the appearance of its seeds (e.g., they are black and lack surface reticulation) and its more narrow seed capsules. This plant is widely regarded as an unattractive weed, but its ecological value, particularly to small animals and moths, is rather high.