Verbascum thapsus, also known as mullein or great mullein, is a tall, gray-green, woolly plant with a single candelabra of smallish, sulfur-yellow flowers. A biennial plant, mullein is perfectly at home on dry roadbanks, gravel driveways, and parched hillsides. It dislikes shade and wet soils. In its first season (see photo), mullein produces a broad rosette of large, whitish leaves that are thickly covered with soft hairs on both sides, giving them a thick and furry feel. In its second year, usually in midsummer, the plant sends up a tall spike – up to eight feet – of tightly-packed, inch-wide yellow blossoms. Mullein possesses a long, fleshy taproot that allows it to plumb dry soils for precious moisture. The entire plant can be harvested, dried, and stored for later use, or its various parts can be used when fresh to prepare oils, infusions, or tinctures.
Constituents and Uses
Mullein is a rich source of mucilage, making it invaluable as an expectorant and demulcent (soothing to mucous membranes). Its flavonoids – specifically rutin and hesperidin – provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and capillary-stabilizing properties. Its flavonoids, essential oils, and saponins are antibacterial and antifungal, and its aucubin – a terpenoid compound – has been shown to protect the livers of experimental animals from damage caused by various toxins.
Mullein has been used for centuries to treat bronchitis, sore throats, and other respiratory complaints. According to Dr. James Duke, author of The Green Pharmacy, an infusion of mullein, taken internally, mobilizes mucous and quells coughs. An oil infusion of mullein flowers is invaluable for treating earaches, hemorrhoids, gum soreness, and mouth ulcers. A decoction of mullein root is useful for toothache, and the root infusion helps alleviate diarrhea.
Mullein is also useful when applied externally as an antibacterial and demulcent. Poultices made from the leaves can be used to treat sunburn, skin ulcerations and other wounds.
Mullein seeds should be avoided, although they have been used traditionally as a potent sedative. Another traditional use that should be approached with caution is smoking mullein leaves to treat asthma or other inflammatory lung conditions.
Folklore has it that burning mullein stalks were once used by witches when they conjured and summoned spirits (hence the name "hag's taper"). A more mundane but equally incendiary application involves dipping the flower stalk in wax and employing it as a torch. Mullein leaves make good insulation, but when dry they become a highly flammable tinder, so they should not be used to insulate walls or other permanent structures. Mullein’s flowers, when boiled in water, produce a reasonably decent yellow dye that can be used to tint cloth or to brighten blond hair. Mullein leaves contain small amounts of rotenone, which is a natural insecticide; a strained infusion, when sprayed on house or garden plants, can be used to deter pests.
As with any medicinal herb, if you develop a rash, itching, or any other sign of allergy, discontinue use immediately and avoid mullein preparations in the future. When preparing infusions of mullein leaves, strain through cheesecloth or muslin to remove the fine hairs, which could irritate your throat.
- The Green Pharmacy. James A. Duke, Ph.D. Rodale Press. 1997
- The New Age Herbalist. Richard Mabey. Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1988
- The Way of Herbs. Michael Tierra, L.Ac., O.M.D. Pocket Books. 1998