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Weird and Wonderful Plants for Pollinators: Pale Indian Plantain

By Justin Wheeler on 11 May 2018

In celebration of National Wildflower Week, we're highlighting some of our favorite "weird and wonderful" plants for pollinators. You can find the best plants for pollinators anytime with our plant lists.

 

Pale Indian Plantain is a plant with high ambitions.

Not to be confused with the banana-like vegetable known from Cuban cuisine, nor the common broadleaf “weed” found in lawns, pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium) is a tall, upright plant topped with a torch of unusual, tubular white flower clusters at its peak.

In its first year from seed, pale Indian plantain forms a tidy rosette of unusual-looking, blue-green leaves that appear as if they are made of plastic. In subsequent years, the plant leaps to a height of three to nine feet. The leaves are held somewhat close to the red, sturdy stems, which keep the flowers aloft. It's a great plant to include in a garden, providing verticality and structure behind other perennials—however, gardeners may wish to clip the stalks after flowering to prevent the plant from spreading by seed. In a wildflower meadow, the plant mixes well with taller wildflowers and grasses, such as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and ironweed (Vernonia spp.)

Even if you have to grab a ladder to do so, it’s worth having a look at the flowers, as they are quite interesting in shape and arrangement and attract a mix of mostly wasps, small bees, flies, and moths.

 

Side-by-side images show Indian plantain. In the first image, it is isolated and displays the rubbery effect. In the second image, it is mixed amid a field.
Indian plantain stands out in a crowd. In a wildflower meadow, it mixes well with taller plants and grasses such as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and ironweed (Vernonia spp.) (Photos: Prairie Moon Nursery)

 

Sand wasps (Bicyrtes), great black wasps (Sphex pensylvanicus), great golden digger wasps (Sphex ichneumoneus), and thread-waisted wasps (Ammophila spp.) are just a few of the beneficial wasps that visit the plant and are its primary pollinators. In her book Pollinators of Native Plants, Heather Holm explains that the flowers are uniquely designed to attract wasps, acting like a floral drinking fountain:

“Nectar is secreted at the base of the style and rises up the corolla allowing access to short-tongued wasps. During hot summer days, wasps have shown a preference for more dilute nectar sources. Pale Indian plantain’s white flowers, with nectar replenished from the base of the corolla, may help keep the nectar cool and more dilute."

Heather also documents the Clematis clearwing moth (Alcathoe caudata) as a visitor of the plant, especially when growing near the moth's host plant of virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana).

Best for: Ornamental interest, supporting predatory wasps to battle “bad” bugs.

Native Range: Native to many states east of the Mississippi.

 

Authors

Justin was formerly the Xerces Society's Web and Communications Coordinator, managing the website, blogs, and social media. As a Penn State Extension Master Gardener, Justin provides education and outreach to his community on a range of gardening-related subjects such as sustainable and pollinator-friendly gardening practices. He lives in State College, Pennsylvania.

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