Synonyms: English Plantain, Lanceleaf Plantain, Narrowleaf Plantain, Snake Plantain, Black Plantain, Long Plantain, Ribble Grass, Ribwort, Black Jack, Jackstraw, Lamb's Tongue, Hen Plant, Wendles, Kemps, Cocks, Quinquenervia, Costa Canina.
Scientific Name: Plantago lanceolata L.
Family: Plantaginaceae (Plantains)
Ribwort Plantain is found throughout Europe, rarely also in North and Central Asia, North and South Africa and New Zealand and Australia
Mucilage, bitters, flavonoids, silicic acid, the glycoside aucubin, antibiotic substances
We are seldom aware of how often Ribwort Plantain grows by the wayside. Its inconspicuous flowerhead, from which the small flowers with delicate stamens peer out, looks more like the spikelet on the end of a long stem of grass and is almost lost amongst the colourful variety of meadow flowers. On the ground, however, the narrow lance-shaped leaves that give the plant the specific epithet lanceolata, form a large rosette. The veins on the 20 to 40 cm long leaves are not branched like in other plants but run the length of the leaves. This is a characteristic that is otherwise usually found only in grasses. Thus, there are two ways in which Ribwort Plantain imitates the grasses with which it lives side by side in the meadows. The perennial plant grows happily anywhere on dry meadows, fields, wasteland and waysides and flowers from May to September.
Ribwort Plantain was already valued in ancient times. Pliny the Elder reports its healing effect in bad coughs and in shaking chills. In the Middle Ages it was used to treat burns, ulcers, inflammation of the eyes and nose and dog bites. Kneipp used it to stop bleeding and treat wounds.
The leaves are the part used. They are dried for tea or pressed to obtain a fresh juice. Ribwort Plantain is an excellent cough remedy because of the mucilage, astringent bitters and silicic acid it contains. Its antibiotic action makes it effective in febrile disorders of the lungs and bronchi. Its use as cough remedy was so proverbial that, in Germany, the expression Ribwort Plantain juice was until recently synonymous with cough mixtures in general.
In folk medicine the juice is used for blood cleansing cures in the spring; diluted with chamomile tea it is used for the treatment of poorly healing wounds. Crushed, freshly picked leaves are placed directly on fresh wounds. Application of crushed ribwort plantain leaves to insect bites relieve the itching and swelling. When you are out walking, you can thus pick an emergency plaster from the meadow.
The plant's common name derives from the prominent veins on the leaves. The Latin name is derived from the Latin planta = sole of the foot, a reference to the leaf shape of some plantain species.
Plantain seeds are sticky when they are moist. They thus stick to the feet of anyone who walks on them and are rapidly spread over long distances. This may be one reason why Ribwort Plantain can be found almost anywhere and is probably also the way the plant was introduced to America by the white settlers. The American Indians therefore call it White Man's Foot.
And why does Ribwort Plantain always grow by the roadside? One legend tells of a young girl who waited in vain by the road for her lover and was in the end transformed into a plantain. In Germanic lore, plantain was thought to embody the souls which had come back to the light from the underworld and now pursued human beings on the earth. And for the ancient Greeks and Romans this plant was also connected with the underworld: with Orcus and his wife Proserpina.
In former times the highly esteemed medicinal plant was also used as food. And even today fresh young plantain leaves make a pungent and healthy addition to salads and dips. The leaves taste best before the plant has flowered and can also be used as a vegetable and in soups.
The interdisciplinary study group on the evolution of medicinal plants at the Institute of Medical History at Würzburg University has named ribwort plantain the medicinal plant of the year 2014.
The plant from another perspective
Ribwort Plantain assumes foreign roles in two ways. At first sight you might think you are looking at a grass and, as with all grasses, the scentless, spikelet-like flower is in fact pollinated by the wind. On closer inspection one might also take the whole plant for a large green flower. In older plants a kind of tuber forms directly above the ground. From this tuber or storage tissue the first long leaves grow, which are coloured yellowish-red at the base. In cross section the plant has the appearance of a receptacle with petals growing from it. Moreover, the leaves are the part of the plant that bewitch you with their sweet perfume as soon as they are crushed.
Thus, as leaf flower, Ribwort Plantain specifically influences inflammation in the bronchial region: leaves and bronchi are located at the centre of the plant and the human being, respectively, and thus correspond to each other. Flowers, on the other hand, correspond to the human metabolic processes and thus help to regulate excessive metabolic processes such as inflammation.