Herb to Know: Mullein
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.
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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.
Verbascum, the Latin name for the herb, may be derived from the Latin barbascum, from barba, meaning “beard” and referring to the hairy leaves. Thapsus is the ancient name of a town in Sicily now called Magnisi.
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The leaves and flowers contain mucilage, which is soothing to irritated membranes, and saponins, which make coughs more productive. Tests have also shown strong anti-inflammatory activity. Leaf or flower teas have been widely used to treat chest colds, bronchitis, and asthma. The leaves make a slightly bitter, aromatic tea; a tea of the flowers is sweeter. English farmers had their cattle drink it to prevent respiratory problems, hence the name “bullock’s lungwort.”
Gerard (a 17th century herbalist) reported that a decoction of mullein roots in red wine was good for bloody diarrhea (“bloudy flix”), and the Iroquois used a decoction of the roots and leaves to treat the same affliction. The Creek drank a decoction of the roots for coughs. Native Americans of various tribes smoked the roots of the dried leaves to treat asthma. The Potawatomi also inhaled mullein smoke for catarrh, and the Hopi smoked the herb to dispel “fits” and witchcraft.
Topical applications have been equally numerous and varied. The Cherokee rubbed mullein leaves in their armpits to treat “prickly rash.” Poultices of the leaves have been used to treat bruises, tumors, and rheumatic pains; treacle spread on a leaf was said to cure hemorrhoids. An ointment made by boiling the leaves in lard or oil is still used to treat skin irritations and itching hemorrhoids. The flower oil (made by steeping the flowers in olive oil kept warm in the sun, near a fire, or in fresh dung) has been used for treating earaches and hemorrhoids.
Mullein leaves have also been used in cosmetic preparations to soften the skin. “Quaker rouge” refers to the practice of reddening the cheeks by rubbing them with a mullein leaf. A yellow dye extracted from the flowers has been used since Roman times as a hair rinse as well as a dye for cloth. The dried leaves can be used as a filler in potpourris.
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Tiny, Irritating Hairs
Like many other herbs, mullein isn’t entirely benign.
Mullein seeds have been used as a fish poison by poachers. Mullein leaves contain rotenone and coumarin, and at least some people find that the hairs irritate the skin and mucous membranes.
Wear gloves when you harvest mullein, see how you react to a small amount of mullein before consuming or smearing on large quantities, and always strain the tea through fine-weave cloth or a coffee filter to remove any stray hairs.
Mullein is easy to grow from seed. Sow pinches of seed about 18 inches apart and 1/16 inch deep in well-drained soil. A position in full sun is preferable, but dry shade will do. Thin clumps of seedlings to one per site. These will make low rosettes in their first year, but second-year plants can provide a tall vertical element at the back of the border. Mullein is drought-resistant and can thus be grown where water is limited. Mullein self-sows readily.
Several species with shapelier or woollier leaves or more eye-catching flower stalks are esteemed as garden flowers. They’re hardy in Zones 4 to 10. These include the biennials, moth mullein (V. blattaria), with 3-foot stalks of light-pink to white flowers, and V. bombyciferum, with silvery leaves and 5-foot stalks of sulfur-yellow flowers. Greek mullein (V. olympicum), with large leaves and 8-foot branching stalks of large golden-yellow flowers, may be perennial under favorable conditions. Purple mullein (V. phoeniceum) is a 3-foot perennial with long-blooming flowers; chaix mullein (V. chaixii ), another 3-foot perennial, has purple-centered yellow or white long-blooming flowers. In addition, many beautiful and showy hybrids have been developed; most of these are propagated vegetatively.
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