Herb to Know: Mullein

Multitalented mullein can help soothe respiratory issues, including coughs, bronchitis, and asthma.

Mullein’s flat, open flowers grow in dense, club-shaped clusters. Photo by Adobe Stock/Aga7ta 

Versatile, fuzzy mullein is a gardener’s friend, an herbalist’s delight, and an engineering marvel all on its own. The genus Verbascum consists of about 300 species that are native to Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. It belongs to the snapdragon family, but the flowers are flat and open, unlike the irregular “dragon faces” of snapdragons. Most species are tall, stout biennials with large leaves and flowers in long terminal spikes. The best-known species among herbalists is the homely but useful common mullein, V. thapsus.

Naturalized mullein is a common weed in most of the United States and Canada, growing in dry fields, waste areas, and dry soils along roadsides.

Mullein with closed flowers. Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto

Plant History

First-year plants form a rosette of large, velvety leaves up to a foot long. In the second year, a velvety flower spike grows up to 8 feet tall. The stalk has alternate leaves that clasp the stem, an arrangement that directs rainwater down the stem to the roots. From June to September, five-petaled yellow flowers that are 1⁄4 to 1 inch across bloom randomly in a dense, club-shaped terminal cluster. The three upper stamens are short and woolly, and the tiny hairs contain sap that may lure insects to the plant; the pollen produced by these stamens may be eaten by flies, preventing it from fertilizing the flower, or may be carried by bees. The two lower stamens are longer and smooth, and they serve as a failsafe, producing pollen that will self-fertilize the plant if it isn’t visited by enough pollinators.

The common name “mullein,” which is also applied to other members of the genus, is probably derived from the Latin mollis, or “soft,” referring to the woolly leaves and stalk, which are covered with branching hairs. The leaves are also referred to as “bunny ears” and “flannel leaf.” The dried down on the leaves and stem ignites readily and was once used for lamp wicks; “candlewick plant” is another old name. The name “hag taper” refers to beliefs that a torch made from a mullein stalk dipped in tallow was either used by witches or would repel them. The custom of using mullein stalks as torches dates back at least to Roman times.

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