Mullein, Verbascum thapsus or V. olympicum, is that plant along the roadsides with a towering spike of yellow flowers which lingers all through winter as a dried-out, brownish-black spike. Being a biennial, mullein will grow as a circular, basal rosette in its first year where all its leaves come from the central stem. In the second year, the flowering spike will grow straight up from the middle, and the leaves will grow upwards on the stem until the flowers begin. It then ends its life-cycle when it goes to seed and becomes a stalk. New basal rosette mullein plants will grow in the surrounding area the following year.
You might notice the 6″ to 2′ bluish-gray-green leaves, which resemble the common landscape plant lamb’s ears because they are furry and soft. We typically consider this plant a benign weed, but I think it’s gorgeous and deserves to be appreciated in a garden. It’s easy to start from seed.
The whole plant is medicinal with dozens of uses. Legend has it that mullein was one of the plants so cherished by European women that when they migrated to the U.S., they sowed its seeds into the hems of their skirts, making sure they would not be without their medicine. It’s easy to understand how they felt if you’ve grown to appreciate how mullein can soothe irritated or congested lungs.
American Indians quickly saw mullein’s virtues as the plant was introduced to North America. In Daniel Moerman’s tome, Native American Ethnobotany, over 25 tribes are listed to have used mullein. The uses range from applying the leaves to swollen glands or skin sores, to sore throats, to cough remedy, and asthma. Several tribes used it for magical or ceremonial purposes, attesting to the high regard the American Indians held for mullein.
Mullein is anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory which is great when there is an infection in the throat, lungs, or on the skin. It’s also an expectorant, helping to move the damp congestion (catarrah) in the lungs. And as a soothing, anti-inflammatory herb, when someone has a non-productive cough that is hard, sore, and a little burning coming from the chest, not the throat, mullein is excellent. Mullein serves as a safe and effect tonic for chronic, dry respiratory inflammation in adults and kids.
For the lungs, the best method of taking mullein is through steeping the chopped leaf in boiling water for about 8-10 minutes. You will need 4-8 grams, three times a day, which is a lot because mullein is very light. Strain the tea through an unbleached coffee filter before drinking to make sure the little hairs don’t bother your throat. A common Indian method for administering herbs quickly was through smoking them. Powdered mullein leaves were smoked to help with asthma and catarrah (damp congestion in the lungs).
Mullein is a great first aid plant. If you’re out in the field and get cut, or develop a rash or athlete’s foot, find some mullein. Make a damp poultice with the leaf and then wrap another leaf around the poultice.
Mullein flowers make a famous ear oil to remove excess wax or relieve pain. A tincture of the flowers is also useful for someone prone to nervous throat clearing.
Speaking of wax, the dried stalks would be dipped in wax and burned as torches. I haven’t tried this, but I think they’d make awesome party torches for a harvest celebration.