Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

By | 01/01/2019
Ribwort plantain (plantago lanceolata) in grass

Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) is a common plant in the UK. It is a broad-leaved weed and a true perennial herb. It is distinctive in shape and can grow on all but the most acid grasslands all over the UK. Ribwort plantain is a common roadside and hedgerow plant.

Ribwort Plantain Plant
A Ribwort Plantain (plantago lanceolata) plant.

Plantago lanceolata has many common names. These include English plantain, narrowleaf plantain, ribgrass, ribleaf, ribwort and black plantain.

It is a distinctive plant, and very easy to spot. The long, leathery, ribbed leaves are easy to spot in any lawn.

It is a native plant to the UK, Europe and Asia and has spread to Australia and the Americas.

The Latin name for it originates from the word Planta, meaning sole of the foot. i.e. spread out and low growing. Lanceolata translates to lance or javelin, in reference to the shape of the leaves.

Greater plantain is a perennial plant from the Plantaginaceae family. This is is a diverse, cosmopolitan family of small herbs and shrubs. Ribwort plantain is a relation to the distinctive greater plantain. It is similar in growth to hoary plantain, but this has much hairier leaves. It it is also distantly related to slender speedwell.

Ribwort plantain on your lawn

Ribwort plantain is a true perennial and grows all year round if conditions allow. The only environments in which it struggles to grow are acidic or waterlogged soils. It is fully hardy and tolerates foot traffic well. So much so that it can be often seen growing in the middle of footpaths.

The weed is very easy to spot on your lawn. It is a round plant. Ribwort plantain can grow over 30cm in diameter, but is often not more than 20cm. It has a rosette of leaves which are long and lance-shaped (lanceolate).

A ribwort plantain leaf
Ribwort plantain leaf.

The leaves are dark green and leathery. They also have conspicuous ribs running along the length of the leaf. The leaves hug the ground if there is no competition, but can become quite erect if it is in a crowded site. There is no true stem on the plant. All leaves and flowers spikes come from one growing node in the centre.

The leafless, wiry flower spikes can grow up to 50cm from the base of the plant. This strong stem is square-shaped, which is very unusual in nature. The flowers at the top of this stem cluster in an oval shape (an
inflorescence). These are black or dark brown and produce white stamens. It is an usual flower and it is common to see hundreds of them swaying in the breeze in the summer.

Plantago lanceolata flowers in a meadow
Plantago lanceolata flower spikes in a meadow. Photo by Andreas Rockstein [CC 2.0] on Flickr

It has a varied root system which can run quite deep into the soil. This helps it tolerate droughts much better than many other lawn weeds.

Ribwort plantain flower spikes are easy to spot

Ribwort Plantain Flowers
Ribwort plantain flowers. Photo by Miroslav Deml [CC 3.0]

Ribwort plantain flowers from April all the way through to the first frosts. This can be well into November in some parts of the UK.

The flowers are wind pollinated and capable of self-fertilisation. Each plant can produce up to 10,000 seeds, although usually no more that a few thousand. One plant can produce many offspring and the seeds stay viable in the soil for a long time.

The seeds are sticky and stick to animals and machinery as a way of moving the species around. Seeds can also survive grazing. Passing through animals ready to germinate on the other side. Worms are also known to eat the seeds, which then settle in worm casts.

Ribwort plantain seeds
Ribwort plantain seeds on a flower stalk.

A single Ribwort plantain plant can live for up to 12 years, but usually they only live for two or three. They can also reproduce nearby via a thick rhizome, which can look like the same plant year after year.

Facts, folklore, cooking and medicine

Ribwort plantain is a pioneer crop used by sheep farmers in wales. The plants can establish themselves in difficult growing conditions. Even in locations such as bare rock. Sheep can then graze the plants and a thin soil can form, bringing in other species.

As it is a herb you can eat Ribwort plantain. The leaves are very bitter but the flower head tastes like mushrooms!

Ribwort plantain is claimed to have some medicinal benefits. Used in a herbal tea as a cough medicine and can treat skin infections, stings and insect bites.

For generations it is fashioned as a makeshift “pop gun” by school children. Loop the strong flower stems and fold them back over and you can “fire” the flowers some distance. Good fun!

Control of Ribwort plantain in a lawn

It is quite easy to manually pick out individual plants from a lawn. The roots are quite strong and tend to come out in one go.

Ribwort plantains are not considered a problem lawn weed. They are quite easy to hand weed out of a lawn. The roots are quite strong and do tend to come out in one go. Use a knife or a trowel to ease them out of the soil.

If there are a large number of plants it is easier to use a selective herbicide to control them. Mow off the flower stalks before spraying and apply a suitable selective herbicide on a dry day. Ribwort plantains have a large leaf area so they take in the chemical easily. Like other plantains, they rarely need a second treatment and re-growth will be small.

If you have a problem with Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) on your lawn, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Further reading and sources

More photos of Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

Plantago lanceolata flowers taken by Norio Nomura in Japan
Plantago lanceolata flowers taken by Norio Nomura in Japan. [CC 2.0]
A mature Plantago lanceolata plant
A mature Plantago lanceolata plant photographed by Harry Rose on Flickr. [CC 2.0]
A young Plantago lanceolata plant photographed on Maui, Hawaii
A young Plantago lanceolata plant photographed on Maui, Hawaii by Forest and Kim Starr on Flickr. [CC 2.0]

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