California Plantain

California Plantain © SBernhard

Dot-seed Plantain, Dwarf Plantain
Plantago erecta

Description (Jepson,

  • Eudicotyledon
    • Eudicots are a major lineage of flowering plants; see family for general characteristics
  • Plantain Family (Plantaginaceae)
  • Annual upright herb
    • Entire plant is hairy
  • Leaves
    • From a basal rosette
    • Grasslike–simple (not divided into leaflets), slender, and erect
  • Flowers
    • Inflorescence (flower arrangement) is a spike (single stem bearing stalkless flowers)
    • Each tiny flower with 4 semi-transparent, papery, white to tan petals
      • Petal base is reddish brown
      • Petals reflex as flower develops and persist in fruit
    • Ovary superior (above the attachment of other flower parts)
  • Fruit is a capsule (a dry, multi-chambered fruit that splits open at maturity)
  • Height to 6 in.


  • Native to California
    • Grows in grasslands, open foothill woodlands, and chaparral, in sandy, clay, or serpentine soils
    • 50 – 54% of plants occur on ultramafic soils, e.g. serpentine; see ultramafic affinity rankings (Safford and Miller 2020)
    • See Serpentine Grassland for more about Edgewood’s serpentine soil and the unique communities it supports
    • See Calflora for statewide observations of this plant
  • Outside California, grows in Oregon and south into Baja California, Mexico
  • Grows at elevations to 2,300 ft.

Uses (San Mateo County Parks prohibits removal of any natural material)

  • Wildlife
    • Larval food source (host) for several butterfly species, e.g. gray buckeye (Junonia coenia) and painted lady (Vanessa cardui)
      • Primary host for several species of checkerspots, including 2 federally-listed endangered species, the Quino checkerspot (Euphydryas editha quino) of southern California and the Bay checkerspot (E. editha bayensis) of San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties
      • California plantain plays an essential role in efforts to re-establish the Bay Checkerspot Butterfly in Edgewood
  • Native people
    • Harvested and ate the seeds (Santa Monica 2019)
  • Psyllium, e.g. Metamucil, a dietary fiber and laxative, is derived from the seeds of Plantago species
Gelatinous Seeds © FPeale

Name Derivation

  • Plantago (plan-TAY-go) – from the Latin planta, “foot print” or “sole of foot,” referring to the basal leaves of Plantago species lying flat on the ground
  • erecta (ee-REK-ta) – from the Latin for “erect” or “upright”
  • Plantain – from the Latin plantago; see above


  • Pollinated by wind or self-pollinates (cleistogamous)
    • Plantago species, in general, are wind pollinated
      • Flowers of wind-pollinated plants usually have muted colors as there is no need to attract pollinators
      • Some sources report that California plantain is likely pollinated by small insects (Montalvo 2010)
    • California plantain also produces cleistogamous flowers
      • Some flowers never open and, instead, self-pollinate
      • This adaptation occurs in some annual plants, allowing fertilization with very little pollen production and under adverse conditions, e.g. a lack of pollinators or drought
      • Cleistogamy is derived from the Greek for “closed marriage”
  • Pistil (female flower part) and stamens (male flower parts) develop sequentially (Prigge and Gibson 2013)
    • Pistil matures first, lengthening and becoming receptive to pollen, before the stamens mature, lengthening and releasing their pollen
    • The sequential maturation of pistil and stamens is called dichogamy (from the Greek for “divided marriage”)
      • Protogyny describes a pistil maturing before stamens (from the Greek for “female first”)
      • Protandry describes stamens maturing before the pistil (from the Greek for “male first”)
    • Once believed to promote cross-pollination by preventing self-fertilization, dichogamy is now understood to more generally increase the efficiency of sexual functions by preventing mechanical interference (Barrett 2002)
      • Pistil does not interfere with pollen export from the stamens
      • Stamens do not impede contact of pollinator with the stigma (pollen-receiving part of the pistil/female structure)
      • Stigma is not clogged with the plant’s own pollen
  • Seeds germinate quickly with winter rains, and plants flower and fruit before the summer drought
    • Gelatinous seed coat of Plantago species swells when wetted, forming an abundant sticky mucilage that helps draw and retain moisture and adheres seeds to the soil (LoPresti)
      • Plantago ovata seeds are used for making dietary fiber supplements, e.g. Metamucil
      • Chia and flax seeds are also known for their copious mucilage
      • External seed mucilage is common in the plant kingdom, having independently evolved at least 100 times
    • Mature seeds explode, dispersing across short distances (Santa Monica 2019)
      • Harvester ants also incidentally disperse seeds while foraging
  • Plant contains iridoid glycosides, a group of bitter compounds, which deter herbivory
    • Some butterfly larvae, e.g. Bay checkerspot and buckeye, are able to sequester these toxins in their bodies, making them unpalatable to predators
California Plantain (L), Cottontop (R)
© DSchiel

ID Tips

  • This plant is diminutive and unassuming and thus easily overlooked in Edgewood’s serpentine grasslands, where it is commonly seen with the equally-small cottontop (Microcarpus californicus var. californicus)
    • California plantain’s flowers are visible 
    • Cottontop’s flowers are hidden in the cobwebby hairs that give the plant its common name

At Edgewood

  • Found in serpentine and non-serpentine grasslands
  • Flowers March – May

See General References

Specific References

Alexander, E.B. 2010, Oct. & 2011, Jan. Serpentine soils and why they limit plant survival and growth. Fremontia 38/39: 28-31.

Barrett, S. 2002. Sexual interference of the floral kind. Heredity 88: 154–159.

LoPresti, E. Seed mucilage ecology. Plant Insect Lab. Oklahoma State University.

Montalvo, A. M., L. K. Cooke, and J. L. Beyers. 2010. Plant profile for Plantago erecta E. Morris. Native Plant Recommendations for Southern California Ecoregions. Riverside-Corona Resource Conservation District and United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station, Riverside, California.

Nature Collective. 2020. Dot-seed plantain.

Prigge, B.A. and A.C. Gibson. 2013. Plantago erecta. A Naturalist’s Flora of the Santa Monica Mountains and Simi Hills, California. Web version, hosted at Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. United States Department of Interior, National Park Service.

Safford, H.D. 2010, Oct. & 2011, Jan. Serpentine endemism of the California flora. Fremontia 38/39: 32-39.

Safford, H.D. and J.E.D. Miller. 2020. An updated database of serpentine endemism in the California flora. Madroño 67(2): 85-104. BioOne Complete. PDF hosted by San Diego State University, San Diego, California.

Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council. 2019. Plant of the month – California plantain.

Shapiro, A.M. and T.D. Manolis. 2007. Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California.