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Plantago is the genus name given to over 200 species of plants. Plants belonging to this genus, commonly called plantains, are mostly herbaceous plants or small shrubs. The tallest are approximately 23 inches (60 cm).
Plants that make up the genus Plantago grow in all continents except Antarctica. Most species grow best in damp areas, and they are widely seen growing alongside roadways. Some species of this family are considered invasive.
The seeds of Plantago ovata are used in over the counter fiber supplements and laxative remedies. The husks from the Plantago seeds, including P. ovata, become gel-like and expand when wet. This makes them an effective treatment for constipation, diverticulitis and irritable bowel syndrome. They are also used as a fiber supplement. Medical studies indicate that using fiber supplements may help control diabetes and lower cholesterol.
Many plants in this genus are important food sources for the larvae of different butterfly and moth species. The fact that it grows easily in wet areas and is not fussy makes it a widely available and valuable food source. The adult is attracted to the Plantago by scent and lays eggs on the plant, providing the larvae with easy access to food.
Plantago is widely used in herbal remedies. Proponents of herbal remedies report that it can be used as a diuretic, anti-inflammatory, and antihistamine. The leaves of the plantain can be made into a poultice, and used to treat insect bites and poison ivy. Tea made from the leaves may soothe a cough and treat bronchitis. Seek guidance from a healthcare professional before using any herbal remedies.
Many species of Plantago are edible. The leaves are tender when young, but become tough with age. Harvest young leaves and add to salads raw or steam them for a side dish. The flowers and stalks can also be eaten cooked or raw, and all parts of the plants, including the seeds and roots can be brewed to make tea.
Plants in the Plantago genus are generally considered safe. It is possible to be allergic, however, and allergic reactions, including anaphylactic shock are possible. It is also possible to develop an obstruction in the gastrointestinal tract when supplementing with over the counter bulk laxatives. This is a rare condition and typically occurs only in patients who have had previous bowel surgeries, or if the supplement is taken without adequate water.