Plantain, Ribwortotanical: Plantago lanceolata
Family: N.O. Plantaginaceae
Synonyms: Snake Plantain. Black Plantain. Long Plantain. Ribble Grass. Ribwort. Black Jack. Jackstraw. Lamb's Tongue. Hen Plant. Wendles. Kemps. Cocks. Quinquenervia. Costa Canina.
Parts Used: Leaves, seeds.
Several of the wild Plantains have been used indiscriminately for Plantago major. Of these, the most important is Plantago lanceolatus (Linn.), the Ribwort Plantain.
Description: This is a very dark green, slender perennial, growing much taller than P. major. Its leaf-blades rarely reach an inch in breadth, are three to five ribbed, gradually narrowed into the petioles, which are often more than a foot long. The flowerstalks are often more than 2 feet long, terminating in cylindrical blunt, dense spikes, 1/2 to 3 or 4 inches long and 1/3 to 1/2 inch thick. It has the same chemical constituents as P. major.
When this Plantain grows amongst the tall grasses of the meadow its leaves are longer, more erect and less harsh, than when we find it by the roadside, or on dry soil. The leaves are often slightly hairy and have at times a silvery appearance from this cause, especially in the roadside specimens. The flower-stalks are longer than the leaves, furrowed and angular and thrown boldly up. The flowerhead varies a good deal in size and form, sometimes being much smaller and more globular than others. The sepals are brown and paper-like in texture and give the head its peculiar rusty look. The corolla is very small and inconspicuous, tubed and having four spreading lobes. The stamens, four in number, are the most noticeable feature, their slender white filaments and pale yellow anthers forming a conspicuous ring around the flower-head.
In some old books we find this species called Costa canina, in allusion to the prominent veinings on the leaves that earned it the name of Ribwort, and it is this feature that caused it to receive also the mediaeval name of Quinquenervia. Another old popular name was 'Kemps,' a word that at first sight seems without meaning, but when fully understood has a peculiar interest. The stalks of this plant are particularly tough and wiry, and it is an old game with country children to strike the heads one against the other until the stalk breaks. The Anglo-Saxon word for a soldier was cempa, and we can thus see the allusion to 'kemps.' This species of Plantain abounds in every meadow and was brought into notice at one time as a possible fodder plant. Curtis, in his Flora Londonensis, says: 'The farmers in general consider this species of plantain as a favourite food of sheep and hence it is frequently recommended in the laying down of meadow and pasture land, and the seed is for that purpose kept in the shops.' But its cultivation was never seriously taken up, for though its mucilaginous leaves are relished by sheep and to a certain extent by cows and horses, it does not answer as a crop, except on very poor land, where nothing else will grow. Moreover, it is very bitter, and in pastures destroys the more delicate herbage around it by its coarse leaves.
The seeds are covered with a coat of mucilage, which separates readily when macerated in hot water. The gelatinous substance thus formed has been used at one time in France for stiffening some kinds of muslin and other woven fabrics.
The leaves contain a good fibre, which, it has been suggested, might be adapted to some manufacturing purpose.