A Close-up View of the Wildflower
"English Plantain"

(Plantago lanceolata)

by Brian Johnston   (Canada)

I suspect that most people do not consider English plantain to be a wildflower at all.  Its rather drab two to three centimetre ellipsoidal spike can't compete with the colourful dandelion or thistle.  Nevertheless, this plant is extraordinarily successful as evidenced by its presence in very large numbers throughout most urban and country landscapes.
In England, the plant is sometimes called "Kemp", derived from the Danish "koempe", meaning warrior.  At times in the past, children would use the stalks as swords in a game of swordplay.
English plantain flowers are packed so tightly to form the spike, that the actual details of one individual flower are almost impossible to see.  The diagram below shows the important parts.  The most striking feature of the plant is the four light green anthers, (the male pollen producing organ), suspended by fragile filaments.  Each flower possesses a single hairy pistil.  Four papery petals and green sepals form the base of the bloom.

A higher magnification reveals more details. The flowers at the base of the spike have finished blooming and have begun to shrivel up and turn brown.  Above the blooming ring, near the tip of the spike, the unopened flowers are protected by a green assembly of sepals.  During the life-cycle of the flower-head, the ring of green stamens seems to move up the spike from bottom to top.

Using a still higher magnification, it is possible to see the structure of the anthers.  Strangely, pollen grains are seldom seen on the surface of these anthers.

By using a microscope equipped with dark-ground illumination, still finer details can be resolved.  The left image shows an anther, and the right, a finely grooved filament.

The image below shows the four beige, parchment-like petals of a typical flower.  Under the petals, the four green sepals are just barely visible.  The reddish pistil protrudes from the junction of the petals and can be seen to end in a bi-lobed stigma (the female, pollen accepting organ).  Since the flowers at the base of the spike have finished blooming, the anthers have fallen off, leaving the shrivelled hair-like filaments that can be seen surrounding the pistil.

Near the top of the spike, it is possible to see the still unopened flowers, each protected by a sheath of four hairy green sepals (sometimes called bracts).

In the image below, notice the hairy reddish-stalked pistils.  At the bottom right, several pistils have begun to shrivel up, as evidenced by their reduced diameter and darker red colour.

When a mature pistil is examined under the microscope, a multitude of tiny hairs can be seen.  They are transparent, and many have obviously captured spherical pollen grains.

As the pistil begins to shrivel up as it dries out, the colour becomes darker, and the tubular protuberances take on an almost ribbon-like appearance.

Although English plantain could not compete successfully in a beauty pageant with its larger and more spectacular wildflower neighbours, its form is different and striking enough to warrant closer attention.

Photographic Equipment

The low magnification photographs in the article were taken using a Nikon Coolpix 4500 with a combination of natural light and the Nikon Cool light SL-1.  Higher magnification images were taken with natural light using a Sony CyberShot DSC-F 717 equipped with a combination of achromatic close-up lenses (Nikon 5T, 6T and shorter focal length achromat) which screw into the 58 mm filter threads of the camera lens.  (These produce a magnification of from 0.5X to 9X for a 4x6 inch image.)  Still higher magnifications were obtained by using a macro coupler (which has two male threads) to attach a reversed 50 mm focal length f 1.4 Olympus SLR lens to the F 717.  (The magnification here is about 13X for a 4x6 inch image.) The photomicrographs were taken with a Leitz SM-Pol microscope (using a dark ground condenser), and the Coolpix 4500. 

 All comments to the author Brian Johnston are welcomed.

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Published in the February 2008 edition of Micscape.
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