black plantain, ribgrass, ribwort, tinker-tailor grass, windles
Plantago lanceolata L.
Ribwort plantain is a common perennial weed of arable fields and grassland, widespread throughout the UK on a range of soils. It may behave as a biennial or even an annual but is a true perennial with a thick short rhizome. It is a common roadside plant. In early surveys of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Norfolk it was especially associated with temporary grass or clover seed crops. Ribwort plantain is recorded up to 2,600 ft in the UK and its remains have been found in prehistoric deposits. It occurs in lawns but less frequently than the greater plantain (P. major). It is relatively drought resistant and is able to grow on dry sites such as embankments. It is also moderately resistant to trampling but not to waterlogging.
Ribwort plantain is a very variable species and many varieties and sub-species have been described. Some of the variation is genetic but habitat and climate can have a big effect on plant morphology.
Ribwort plantain is very palatable to sheep and it has been included in grass seed mixtures. In Wales it has been used as a pioneer species for hill improvement. Sheep chew the leaves and crown down to the ground. Cattle have more difficulty, especially when the leaves are prostrate in short grass. The fibrosity index is consistently low compared with ryegrass. The leaves are a good source of calcium, phosphate, potassium, and sodium, as well as cobalt and copper trace elements. It is said to improve animal health and the flavour of milk. Ribwort plantain also has medicinal uses.
Flowering begins in April and continues until the frosts. Long days are required to induce flowering and most flowers develop in June and July. Plants may flower in the first year but there is some evidence that rosettes need to reach a minimum size to initiate flowering. Flowering may be delayed in dense grass. The flowers are wind pollinated but insects visit the flowers to collect pollen. Ribwort plantain is self-sterile and entirely cross-fertilized. Seed may mature 2-3 weeks after fertilization. An average plant will produce 2,500 seeds but a large one may have 10,000. On poor soils, however, seed numbers range from 35 to 261 per plant. Some seeds are shed soon after ripening while others remain on the plant until it dies down.
Ribwort plantain seeds may germinate in the autumn of production or early the following year. The main period of seedling emergence is January to April but odd seedlings can emerge at anytime. Seeds will germinate in darkness especially if nitrate is present. In the laboratory, germination increases after a period of dry storage. Stratification at a low temperature for 6 weeks or longer will improve the level of germination. In the field, seeds germinate best where soil has been compressed by light trampling. Seedlings often appear in open areas of pasture where there has been overgrazing but seedlings are able to establish themselves in standing vegetation too. Seed germinates shallowly, usually at 5 mm depth.
The seedlings form adventitious roots and older plants develop a short thick rhizome. Some roots are superficial, others penetrate deeply into the soil and confer good drought tolerance. In close grazing the leaves are prostrate, in tall vegetation the leaves are erect. Plants overwinter as small rosettes with broader leaves than the linear lanceolate ones borne in spring and summer. The rosettes start into growth again in spring.
Seed longevity in dry storage and in soil is given as 10 to 12 years but persistence in soil has been estimated at 50-60 years. In some instances only 2% of seeds germinated after burial in soil for 16 years. In undisturbed soil, seed was viable after 4 years but not after 20 years. In cultivated soil most seeds germinate or die within 1-2 years. The annual percent decline in cultivated soil was 60%.
In grassland, the population may appear be remain static but there is a regular turnover of individuals. Seedling mortality is high but some establish to replace mature individuals that disappear. A half-life of 13.5 months has been calculated for ribwort plantain plants. Individual plants may live for 12 years and ribwort plantain can reproduce vegetatively from buds on the rhizome and from root fragments. Connections between ramets in a clump of rosettes may break up to produce individual plants.
There is no active dispersal mechanism but the seeds become mucilaginous and adhesive when wet. The sticky seeds may adhere to animals and machinery. Ribwort plantain seeds can occur as impurities in clover and grass seed. Seed can survive passage through the digestive system of cattle and apparently-viable seeds have been found in cow manure. Seeds have also been found in, and seedlings raised from, the droppings of many bird species. Passage through their digestive systems may enhance seed germination. The seeds are ingested by earthworms and pass out unharmed in the wormcast soil.
Ribwort plantain may be kept in check by good cultivation, well-cleaned root crops and the use of pure crop seed.
In grassland, undergrazing favours ribwort plantain. It is reduced more by grazing than by mowing and is less resistant to trampling than greater plantain. In roadside verges, the incidence of ribwort plantain increases with cutting frequency but is particularly favoured by cutting twice a year.
Ribwort plantain is attacked by a range of insects and is an alternate host for several species of aphid. The flower and seed heads are often predated. Slugs and snails do not eat the leaves but ribwort plantain is grazed by rabbits.
Updated November 2007.