I. A genus (plantago) of humble weed-like plants found nearly all over the globe, but most abundant in the temperate parts of the old world. It gives its name to the small family plantiginacem, which includes only two other genera. The plantains are stemless herbs with a tuft of spreading leaves, and in our species slender leafless flower stalks, upon which the whitish flowers are crowded in a small bracted spike or head; calyx with four sepals; corolla small, with a narrow tube and four-parted border, withering on the pod; stamens four (rarely two); pod two-celled, two-to several-seeded, and opening by a transverse line, the top falling away like a lid. The common plantain, P. major, is found almost everywhere around dwellings; its ovate or slightly heart-shaped leaves have five to seven strong ribs, and channelled petioles; its dense slender flower spikes are from 6 to 18 in. long, and are often placed in the cages of birds, which are very fond of the unripe and ripe seeds; the broad leaves have long had a popular reputation as a beneficial cooling application to bruises.
This is one of the most thoroughly naturalized of all European weeds; it has followed the settler to the most remote parts, and is said to be called "the white man's foot" by the aborigines; a small and rough form grows in salt marshes. The native P. cordata, which resembles it somewhat, is rather rare along streams, especially southward. - The rib grass, P. lanceolata, also called ripple grass, buckhorn, and English plantain, is another extensively introduced species, and is abundant in meadows. This has lanceolate, three- to five-ribbed leaves, which are 4 to 10 in. long, and usually hairy; the channelled flower stalk is 1 or 2 ft. high with a short spike, which is at first ovoid, but later usually becoming cylindric. Most animals, especially sheep, are fond of its mucilaginous leaves, and in England it was formerly cultivated as a fodder plant; even at the present time the catalogues of the English seedsmen include it with various grass seeds in the mixtures they offer for seeding down permanent pastures; in this country it is regarded as a weed, and as its seeds are of the size of those of clover, it is one very difficult to keep clear of, though it is much less harmful than most weeds.
Common Plantain (Plantago major).
Among our native species is the seaside plantain, P. maritima, found all along the coast; its linear, fleshy, and almost cylindrical ribless leaves look very unlike those of the other plantains. P. Virginica is a hairy species found on sandy ground and dry hills, and P. pusilla is only 1 to 4 in. high, with threadlike leaves. P. Patagonica is a very variable species that has received a number of names; it is found nearly the whole length of North and South America, and is especially common westward. The seeds of an oriental species, P. decumbens, are found in East Indian bazaars under the Persian name of ispaghul; they have much the same appearance as the seeds of other plantains, but when held in the mouth give off an abundant mucilage, without taste or odor; one part of the seeds to 20 parts of water forms a thick jelly, and one part to 70 of water yields a mucilaginous drink much used for dysentery and other affections of the bowels; they have been in use for several centuries, and are employed by the European physicians in India as a demulcent. - Since naturalists have turned their attention to the provisions for securing cross fertilization among flowers by the aid of insects and otherwise, these humble weeds have possessed a new interest, as they furnish excellent examples of dichogamy, i. e., the stamens and pistils of the flowers coming to perfection at different times.
In the common and ribwort plantains the long and hairy style is protruded from the apex of the closed bud, to be fertilized by pollen from other flowers, for a day or two before its own stamens are ready; and by the time these are hung out upon their long filaments, fertilization has already taken place or the stigma is too dry to receive pollen from its own flowers.
A Banana-Like Fruit, the produce of musa paradisiaca. Though different specific names are applied to the plantain and banana, the plants are probably mere varieties; the former lacks the purple spots upon the stems of the other, and has a longer and more angled fruit. (See Banana).