Annual herb with a taproot flowering stem to 25 cm tall Leaves: basal, semi-clasping, to 18 cm long and 1 cm wide, linear with a tapering base and pointed tip, more or less parallel-veined, slightly rough, woolly on the lower surface. Inflorescence: a cylindrical spike of many flowers arising from a leafless stalk (scape), 0.5 - 17 cm long, moderately woolly, with a long, linear, leaf-like bract under each flower. Flowers: stalkless or nearly stalkless, whitish, rust-colored at the base of each lobe, subtended by a long, linear bract. Bract more or less 3 cm long, 2 mm wide, bristle-tipped, and densely woolly at the base. Stamens four, exserted, alternate with corolla lobes. Anthers yellow. Style one, exserted. Sepals: four, narrowly oblong egg-shaped with a rounded apex, front two green, to 3 mm long, densely hairy, minutely scarious-margined (dry, thin, and membranous), rear two mostly scarious with a green midrib. Fruit: a dehiscent capsule (circumscissile). Seeds two, brown, 2 - 3 mm long, oblong, convex on one side, concave on the other. Corolla: four-lobed, whitish, rust-colored at the base of each lobe, 3 - 4 mm wide, scarious (dry, thin, membranous). Lobes spreading, about 2 mm wide, rounded to egg-shaped.
Similar species: The long, conspicuous bracts in the inflorescence easily distinguish this species.
Flowering: mid-June to mid-September
Habitat and ecology: Found in dry ballast in railroad switching yards and cindery industrial places. Often occurring along roads and railroads in soil so poor that other vascular plants don't even grow there. It is local in sterile, sandy soil as well.
Occurence in the Chicago region: native
Notes: This plant is often variable in its size and hairiness.
Etymology: Plantago comes from the Latin word planta, meaning footprint. Aristata means "bearing a bristle."
Taprooted, short-lived, usually annual, rather thinly hairy; lvs linear or nearly so, to 18 cm, the petioles dilated and papery at the sheathing, striate base; spikes cylindric, 3-6(-10) cm, the linear bracts conspicuously long-exsert, the lower ones exsert 5-25 mm, the upper ones often shorter but still conspicuous; sep narrowly oblong-obovate, rounded at the tip; cor-lobes 2 mm, spreading; stamens 4, typically only barely or scarcely exsert and the fls selfed, seldom longer and the fls open-pollinated; seeds 2, brown, elliptic, 2-3 mm, very convex on the outer side, concave on the inner; 2n=20. Disturbed habitats; native from Ill. to La. and Tex., now naturalized over most of e. U.S. and adj. Can.
Gleason, Henry A. & Cronquist, Arthur J. 1991. Manual of vascular plants of northeastern United States and adjacent Canada. lxxv + 910 pp.