Plantago lanceolata (PROTA)

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Plantago lanceolata L.

Protologue: Sp. pl. 1: 113 (1753).
Family: Plantaginaceae
Chromosome number: 2n = 12, 18, 24

Vernacular names

  • Ribwort (plantain), rib grass, small plantain, narrow-leaved plantain (En).
  • Plantain, herbe Caroline, plantain lancéolé, herbe-à-cinq-côtes (Fr).

Origin and geographic distribution

Originally from Europe and northern and central Asia, Plantago lanceolata is now cosmopolitan. In Africa it occurs mainly in the eastern and southern parts, including South Africa. It is common in Mauritius and Rodrigues.


In temperate regions, Plantago lanceolata has largely the same traditional uses as Plantago major L.. The leaves are used as a diuretic and astringent, and to treat wounds, insect stings, sunburn, skin diseases, eye irritation and inflammation of mouth and throat. An infusion acts as a general detoxifier of the body, and is taken to treat colds, cough, hoarseness, asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, fevers, gastritis, ulcers, bladder problems, kidney stones, intestinal complaints, irregular menstrual flow, hypertension, rheumatism and hay fever. An infusion of the dried seeds is applied as a soothing eye lotion, taken as a treatment for diarrhoea and dysentery or for intestinal worms in children. In modern phytotherapy the leaves are used in cough syrups to alleviate irritation. Macerates, fluid extracts, syrups and juice from the fresh plant are all used for treating inflammation of the mouth and throat, and externally for inflamed skin.

In tropical Africa the uses in traditional medicine are largely the same. In Mauritius a tincture made from the mashed leaves in alcohol is applied to aching teeth caused by caries. The crushed leaves are applied as a poultice on wounds to stop bleeding. A leaf decoction or infusion is used to wash the eyes to treat eye infection. A tea made from the whole plant is taken against nausea and is used as a mouth wash for aphthae. It is also used to wash parts of the body to treat rheumatic pains. In Nigeria, the whole plants, including the seeds, are used to treat intestinal problems such as gastritis, gastro-enteritis, and salmonellosis, and many respiratory problems. In Ethiopia Plantago lanceolata is one of the 10 most used taenicidal herbs in local medicine, either as an infusion or in alcoholic beverages. The roots are traditionally used to treat fertility problems.

The seed mucilage is an excellent thickener used in cosmetics (e.g. in lotions and hair wave sets) and as a stabilizer in the ice-cream industry. It is also used in the preparation of chocolate. The seeds can be used as a source of a low-cost gelling agent for tissue culture. The quality is comparable to that of agar, but at about 10% of the cost. Plantago lanceolata is currently being marketed as a stop smoking aid in the United Kingdom, as it is said that it causes an aversion to tobacco. In the United States Plantago major has been patented and marketed for the same purpose. Leaves are edible and sometimes eaten as vegetable. Plantago lanceolata is occasionally grown as a fodder crop and considered to be of better quality than Plantago major.

Production and international trade

For Africa, no information on production or trade of Plantago lanceolata is known and general information on production and trade is scarce. In the United Kingdom Plantago lanceolata is cultivated for medicinal purposes, and it is also imported from Bulgaria, Russia, former Yugoslavia, Hungary and Poland. Prices in 2004 were US$ 10.50/kg for dried material wholesale and US$ 58/kg for retail.


A range of pharmacological activities has been found in tests with Plantago lanceolata extracts, including weak antibiotic, wound healing, anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcerogenic, laxative, analgesic, antioxidant and immunomodulatory activities. Biologically active compounds include polysaccharides, caffeic acid derivatives, flavonoids, iridoid glycosides and terpenoids.

The saccharides galacturonic acid, galactose, arabinose, rhamnose, glucose, xylose, as well as a pectic polysaccharide, a galactoarabin and a galactan have been isolated from the leaves. Extraction of the seeds in cold water yields a polysaccharide, which contains uronic acid, pentosans, methyl pentosan, and an oil. The seeds owe their laxative properties to the very hydrophilic polysaccharides. They absorb much water and form a gel that increases stool bulk, stimulates peristalsis and facilitates bowel movements. The effect has been confirmed by several clinical studies. The mucilage can also be used as supportive therapy in diarrhoea, because the transit period of the bowel contents is extended.

The leaves, seeds and roots contain caffeic acid and derivatives such as chlorogenic acid, neochlorogenic acid, plantamajoside, acteoside (verbascoside), syringic acid and vanillic acid. Plantamajoside showed anti-inflammatory activity in tests with mice, and some antibacterial activity. Both plantamajoside and acteoside have anti-oxidant activity and are DPPH (2,2-diphenyl- 1-picrylhydrazyl) radical scavengers. Acteoside has antibacterial, antihypertensive, immunosuppressant and analgesic activities.

Among the flavonoids isolated are apigenin- 7-O-monoglucoside, apigenin-6,8-diglucoside and luteolin-7-O-β-glucoside. The methanol extract of the plant showed no cytotoxic activity against a human tumour cell line of renal adenocarcinoma, but did show total inhibition of breast adenocarcinoma and melanoma growth in culture.

Plantago lanceolata leaves also contain iridoid glycosides (1.9–2.4%) such as aucubin, catalpol and asperuloside. Aucubin showed anti-inflammatory and hepatoprotective activities in tests with mice, spasmolytic activity in tests with rats, and antiviral activity against hepatitis B virus. Aucubigenin, the aglycone of aucubin, has antimicrobial activity. Two cultivars of Plantago lanceolata from Spain showed a strong increase in aucubin and acteoside concentrations in the leaves during the growing season.

In Ethiopia tests of the toxicity and therapeutic activities of Plantago lanceolata leaves as a taenicidal medicine in mice showed moderate toxicity and low taenicidal activity. The antimicrobial action is moderate. The roots were tested for uterotonic and anti-implantation activities in mice, but showed low activity.


Small perennial herb up to 60(–100) cm tall, with a thick rhizome and fibrous roots. Leaves in a dense rosette, arranged spirally; stipules absent; petiole up to as long as the blade; blade linear-lanceolate to narrowly ovate or spatulate, (2–)10–20(–40) cm × 1–3(–7) cm, base tapering into the petiole, apex acute to acuminate, both surfaces glabrous or appressed pubescent to villous, margins entire or shallowly dentate, veins 3–5, distinct, parallel. Inflorescence a short spike 0.5–5(–10) cm long, very densely flowered, peduncle 10–60(–100) cm long, grooved, silky hairy; bracts ovate, 2.5–4(–7) mm long. Flowers usually bisexual, regular, 4-merous, sessile, brownish white; sepals rounded-ovate, 2.5–3.5 mm long, the lower pair joined; corolla c. 3 mm long, lobes ovate, 2–2.5 mm long; stamens inserted on the corolla lobes, exserted, anthers almost white; ovary superior, 2–4-celled, style 1, about twice as long as the flower. Fruit a circumscissile, ellipsoid capsule 3–5 mm long, (1–)2–3-seeded. Seeds oblong-ellipsoid, 2.5–3 mm long, yellow-brown to dark brown, mucilaginous when wet. Seedling with epigeal germination.

Other botanical information

Plantago comprises nearly 270 species and is cosmopolitan, but mostly temperate in distribution. Plantago lanceolata is extremely variable, but much of the variation reflects differences in habitat (e.g. hairy plants in more dry habitats). The leaves tend to be upright and more linear-lanceolate when the surrounding cover is tall. In grazed areas, its habit is prostrate and the leaves are more ovate.

Growth and development

In tropical climates, Plantago lanceolata may flower all year round, with a life cycle that may be accomplished in 6 weeks. In temperate regions, the plants overwinter below the ground in open areas, or as small rosettes if more cover is present. The longevity of Plantago lanceolata varies with the region and the disturbance of the site. Individual plants have been known to persist for at least 12 years. Old plants develop a thick rhizome producing new aerial shoots, which leads to clumping.

In general, Plantago lanceolata seems to be a strict outbreeder although other studies state that it is self-fertile. Genetic studies revealed that several sexual forms exist in Plantago lanceolata: bisexual plants with long anthers and viable pollen, bisexual plants with short anthers and pollen with poor viability and female plants with rudimentary stamens.

Seed production is highest in open, cultivated land, and least in mowed or grazed areas. The seeds are ripe 2–3 weeks after fertilization. They readily adhere to animals or people, which promotes dispersal. They can also be transported by water.


Plantago lanceolata occurs in disturbed areas. It is a very common weed of cultivated areas and roadsides, as well as open woodland and grassland. Plantago lanceolata is more drought resistant than Plantago major, but is less tolerant to water-logging; it does not tolerate saline soil.

Propagation and planting

Plantago lanceolata can be multiplied by seeds or vegetatively. The seeds have a dormancy period of one to several months, which can be broken by dry storage at 5°C for several weeks or 20°C for several months. Germination is best for 1–6-year-old seeds and at temperatures of 25–30°C. Nitrate stimulates germination of Plantago lanceolata.


Pure stands of Plantago lanceolata respond well to fertilizer, but in mixed pastures N-fertilizer will increase competition from other plants. Its root system can exploit deeper soil layers than most other pasture plants. In mixed pastures Plantago lanceolata establishes quickly and is preferentially grazed, which may lead to its disappearance from the sward. The inflorescences are avoided by grazing animals.

Diseases and pests

Seedling mortality of Plantago lanceolata is common, and is due to a complex of fungal species interacting with abiotic factors. Stalk disease is caused by the fungus Phomopsis subordinaria. Plantago lanceolata is a host of Meloidogyne nematodes.


Care should be taken when collecting Plantago lanceolata from the wild for medicinal purposes, since plants may contain high concentrations of heavy metals such as lead and cadmium where they grow along roads.


The forage yield of special cultivars has reached up to 20 t/ha in New Zealand.

Handling after harvest

The drying temperature affects the content of the active compounds of the plant material. The concentrations of the active compounds steadily decrease in the initial stages of drying both under natural climatic conditions and at 60°C.

Genetic resources

Plantago lanceolata is common and extremely widespread and not threatened by genetic erosion. Several small genebank collections exist, especially in South America and Europe.


Improved pasture cultivars have been bred in New Zealand; they include ‘Grassland Lancelot’ and ‘Ceres Tonic’.


The uses of Plantago lanceolata orally to treat digestive and bronchial disorders, and topically to treat skin disorders and eye infections are very widespread. Recent research seems to substantiate traditional uses, although information is far from complete. Related species with similar uses are more easily and widely cultivated, e.g. Plantago afra L. and Plantago ovata Forssk. (ispaghul), which are cultivated in India for medicinal purposes.

Major references

  • Bruneton, J., 1995. Pharmacognosy, phytochemistry, medicinal plants. Technique & Documentation Lavoisier, Paris, France. 915 pp.
  • Desta, B., 1994. Ethiopian traditional herbal drugs. Part III: Anti-fertility activity of 70 medicinal herbs. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 44(3): 199–209.
  • Desta, B., 1995. Ethiopian traditional herbal drugs. Part 1: Studies on the toxicity and therapeutic activity of local taenicidal medications. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 45(1): 27–33.
  • Fons, F., Gargadennec, A., Gueiffier, A., Roussel, J.-L. & Andary, C., 1998. Effects of cinnamic acid on polyphenol production in Plantago lanceolata. Phytochemistry 49(3): 697–702.
  • Holm, L.G., Plucknett, D.L., Pancho, J.V. & Herberger, J.P., 1977. The world’s worst weeds. Distribution and biology. University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, United States. 609 pp.
  • Lilis Pangemanan, 1999. Plantago L. In: de Padua, L.S., Bunyapraphatsara, N. & Lemmens, R.H.M.J. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 12(1). Medicinal and poisonous plants 1. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 397–403.
  • Suomi, J., Wiedmer, S.K., Jussila, M. & Riekkola, M.L., 2002. Analysis of iridoid glycosides by micellar electrokinetic capillary chromatography (MECC) and screening of plant samples by partial filling (MECC)-electrospray ionization mass spectrometry. Journal of Chromatography 970: 287–296.
  • Tamura, Y. & Nishibe, S., 2002. Changes in the concentrations of bioactive compounds in plantain leaves. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 50(9): 2514–2518.

Other references

  • Baerts, M. & Lehmann, J., 2002. Plantago lanceolata. [Internet]. Prelude Medicinal Plants Database. Metafro-Infosys, Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium prelude/view_plant?pi=10120 June 2004.
  • Bisset, N.G., 1994. Herbal drugs and phytopharmaceuticals: a handbook for practice on a scientific basis. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, USA.
  • Brautigam, M. & Franz, G., 1985. Structural features of Plantago lanceolata mucilage. Planta Medica 55(4): 293–297.
  • Calabozo, B., Barber, D. & Polo, F., 2001. Purification and characterization of the main allergen of Plantago lanceolata pollen, Pla l 1. Clinical and Experimental Allergy 31(2): 322–330.
  • Ebrahimzadeh, H., Mirmasumi, M. & Tabatabaei, M.F., 1997. Callus formation and mucilage production in leaf and root explants of four Plantago species. Iranian Journal of Agricultural Sciences 28(3): 87–97.
  • Fleming, T. (Editor), 1998. PDR for herbal medicines. Medical Economics Company, Montvale, New Jersey, United States. 1244 pp.
  • Galvez, M., Martin-Cordero, C., López-Lazaro, M., Cortés, F. & Ayuso, M.J., 2003. Cytotoxic effect of Plantago spp. on cancer cell lines. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 88: 125–130.
  • Glen, H.F., 1998. FSA contributions 12: Plantaginaceae. Bothalia 28(2): 151–157.
  • Guil-Guerrero, J.L., 2001. Nutritional composition of Plantago species (P. major L., P. lanceolata L., and P. media L.). Ecology of Food and Nutrition 40(5): 481–495.
  • Gurib-Fakim, A., Guého, J., Sewraj, M.D. & Dulloo, E., 1994. Plantes médicinales de l’île Rodrigues. Editions de l’Océan Indien, Rose-Hill, Mauritius. 580 pp.
  • Gurib-Fakim, A., Guého, J. & Bissoondoyal, M.D., 1997. Plantes médicinales de Maurice, tome 3. Editions de l’Océan Indien, Rose-Hill, Mauritius. 471 pp.
  • Lehmann, G., 1988. Plantaginaceae. In: Launert, E. (Editor). Flora Zambesiaca. Volume 9, part 1. Flora Zambesiaca Managing Committee, London, United Kingdom. pp. 9–12.
  • Lisowski, S., Malaisse, F. & Symoens, J.J., 1972. Plantaginaceae. In: Bamps, P. (Editor). Flore d’Afrique centrale. Spermatophytes. Jardin botanique national de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium. 6 pp.
  • Murai, M., Tamayama, Y. & Nishibe, S., 1995. Phenylethanoids in the herb of Plantago lanceolata and inhibitory effect on arachidonic acid-induced mouse ear edema. Planta Medica 61(5): 479–480.
  • Nostro, A., Germano, M.P., D’Angelo, V., Marino, A. & Cannatelli, M.A., 2000. Extraction methods and bioautography for evaluation of medicinal plant antimicrobial activity. Letters in Applied Microbiology 30: 379–384.
  • Samuelsen, A.B., 2000. The traditional uses, chemical constituents and biological activities of Plantago major L.: a review. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 71: 1–21.
  • Sharma, N., Koul, P. & Koul, A.K., 1992. Genetic systems of six species of Plantago (Plantaginaceae). Plant Systematics and Evolution 181: 1–9.
  • Verdcourt, B., 1971. Plantaginaceae. In: Milne-Redhead, E. & Polhill, R.M. (Editors). Flora of Tropical East Africa. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. 7 pp.
  • Wegener, T. & Kraft, K., 1999. Der Spitzwegerich (Plantago lanceolata L.): Reizlinderung bei Infektionen der oberen Atemwege. Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift 149(8–10): 211–216.

Sources of illustration

  • Holm, L.G., Plucknett, D.L., Pancho, J.V. & Herberger, J.P., 1977. The world’s worst weeds. Distribution and biology. University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, United States. 609 pp.


  • A. Gurib-Fakim, Faculty of Science, University of Mauritius, Réduit, Mauritius

Correct citation of this article

Gurib-Fakim, A., 2006. Plantago lanceolata L. In: Schmelzer, G.H. & Gurib-Fakim, A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 9 July 2021.