Mulling over mullein

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Common names: Mullein, miner's candlestick, velvet plant, blanket leaf

Spanish: Punchón, Gordolobo

Family: Scrophulariaceae (Figwort family)

Mullein grows throughout the world, ranging from sea level to the alpine mountains. Mullein is a tall plant with velvety leaves and bright yellow flowers blooming in a raceme (spike-like flower structure) at the top of the plant. Mullein can be an annual or monocarpic perennial (takes two or more years to flower and die) whose seeds germinate best on bare ground. Mullein in not a native plant and was introduced into North America in the mid-1700s by European immigrants who used it for fishing due to the presence of toxins in the ripe seeds. Since then it has become widespread throughout the continent.

Mullein is an important medicinal herb and has a variety of uses. The flowers are effective for lower respiratory inflammation and especially useful for a hot, dry cough, encouraging moist secretions and helping to relax spasms.

These same properties make mullein an ideal herb for asthma symptoms. The anti-inflammatory properties of the flowers are used to make an oil, when warmed and put in the ear, is soothing for the symptoms of an ear infection.

The root of mullein is astringent and is a traditional remedy of parteras (traditional Spanish midwives) to treat postpartum urinary incontinence (loss of urinary control that new moms sometimes experience). The leaves of mullein are smoked in many nontobacco smoking mixtures.

When harvesting mullein, the leaves can be collected anytime during the spring or summer. The flowers can be collected in spring or early summer by lopping off the top of the plant or by plucking out each individual yellow flower.

Never collect the flower spike with a mature seed present as it contains a nerve toxin called rotenone, originally used as a fish poison, and still used to this day as an insecticide. Don't let this prevent you from making use of this valuable plant as medicine though, just be careful not to collect the mature seed.

Consult your health care practitioner about the use of herbs or supplements, especially if you are pregnant, taking prescription medication or administering herbs to children.

Rob Hawley is an herbalist and co-owner of Taos Herb Company. For more information, call (575) 758-1991 or go to www.taosherb.com

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