By Deb Soule
The tall taper of common mullein stands out in the garden when the stalk is covered with yellow blossoms. This plant is considered to be a weed by some and a valuable medicinal plant by others. Various Verbascum species are native to Europe and Asia. Verbascum thapsus, common mullein, has naturalized itself extensively in the United States and Australia and commonly grows in poor, hard packed soil in places such as highway embankments and clear cut areas.
Mullein belongs to the Scrophulariaceae family. The first year, this biennial forms a rosette of leaves near the ground; the second year a tall flower stalk appears and can grow up to 6 feet in height. When grown in well composted garden soil, the plant produces large, oval shaped leaves are at least 2 feet long at the base of the plant and are progressively smaller toward the top of the stalk.
Mullein may appear as a volunteer in your garden. If you want to encourage its presence, acquaint yourself with the appearance of the first year plant to avoid removing it by mistake. First year mullein transplants fairly easily in the spring. Give new transplants plenty of water, as the young roots are shallow. Mullein needs full sun and well-drained soil. If you have a dry area in your garden, consider placing mullein there.
The soft, fuzzy, grayish green leaves of mullein gave rise to its Latin “mollis,” which means soft. When my dog Mochi died this spring, I covered her with various herbs, including a large, fresh mullein leaf, as mullein reminds me of her soft fur. I buried her in one of my herb gardens, nestled among three maple trees. Just recently five baby mullein plants appeared on her grave. These young plants remind me that life continues after death.
Mullein is easily grown from seed. Sow it directly into a bed in the fall or spring or start it indoors in flats in the early spring. The seed needs light to germinate, so don’t cover it. I have observed something interesting over several years of growing mullein: I had assumed the first few years I had mullein flowers that I would have hundreds of mullein plants reseeding the following year, because the stalks are loaded with seed. This has never been so, however, because mullein seeds are a favorite of goldfinches. In the late summer and fall, the dried stalks are covered with finches who bend them over as they clamor for the precious seeds. I learned to bend the stalks and gently tap them to collect seed for the following year by watching the finches. If you want to collect seed, be sure to do it soon after the seeds form and ripen. Usually by late August or early September the flower stalks have dried and the ripe seeds easily fall into your hand when you bend and tap the stalk.
The Romans called mullein “candelaria,” as they used the dried stalks for candles. In Old Europe mullein was thought to protect people against illness and darkness. The monastic gardens had mullein growing in them to keep out the devil. Mullein was considered to provide light, or to light one’s path. As a woman who respects the work of writers such as Carl Jung, Patricia Reis and James Hillman, I would say that mullein helps us to see more clearly or illuminate the shadow aspects within ourselves, our family, our community and our culture. I believe we cannot have light without darkness and darkness without light.
For years I have had the common mullein, Verbascum thapsus, growing in my gardens. Last year I transplanted over 60 Greek mullein plants, Verbascum olympicum, as I had heard from several herbalists that the flowers of this species were much easier to pick for medicine. Behind the arbor at Avena’s garden this summer, a spectacular show of yellow tapers, all over 6 feet tall, appeared, beginning their bloom in late June. This species puts out multiple upright stalks, each covered with hundreds of flowers, which the bees adore.
We hang small baskets around our necks and hand pick the flowers early in the morning once the dew has disappeared and before the sun makes the flowers wilt. We then fill glass jars with the fresh flowers, cover them completely with olive oil and let them infuse in a warm place (an oven with a pilot light at 85 degrees F. is ideal) for two weeks. The flowers of both species, V. thapsus and V. olympicum, contain aromatic volatile oils, which ease the pain of an earache. As long as the eardrum is not perforated, one to three drops of fresh mullein flower oil is remarkable at relieving inflammation and pain in the ear and eliminating wax accumulation. I mix fresh St. Johnswort, calendula and garlic oils with the mullein oil, as these herbs together are very effective for resolving ear infections. I also make a tincture from the fresh flowers for internal use. This tincture soothes a deep, dry, painful and irritating cough.
Mullein leaves gathered from first- or second-year plants before the flower stalks appear can be used fresh in tea throughout the summer or tinctured when fresh. Dry the leaves from V. thapsus, as V. olymicum leaves do not dry well. Mullein leaves are valuable for various respiratory problems. The leaf has a mildly bitter and pungent taste, which makes it useful in reducing fevers and opening the lungs. Mullein’s mucilaginous quality is useful for soothing harsh, dry, racking coughs where the tissue of the lungs has become irritated. Mullein leaf tea is soothing to dry, irritating coughs, sore throats, laryngitis, and acute and chronic bronchitis. It is specific for coughs that have a deep, hollow sound and that cause pain in the diaphragm, abdomen or lower ribs from the force and frequency of the cough. Dryness and harsh coughing wear down the tiny hairs called villi, which line the mucous membranes of the lungs. The villi of the lungs get worn down from other situations, such as smoking, overexposure to various air pollutants, wood dust and toxic fumes. Mullein leaf is an appropriate herb to add to a tea mix along with red clover, plantain, calendula blossoms and marshmallow leaf and root for healing damaged lung tissue. Mullein leaf, calendula and Echinacea root in combination help to reduce swollen glands.
Mullein flowers and leaves combined with other herbs help relax the chest in someone who has asthma, croup, emphysema or whooping cough. Mullein’s ability to relax the muscles of the chest and open the airways makes breathing easier. On summer days when the ozone level is high and breathing is difficult, I add mullein leaf to my tea.
I consider mullein leaf tea to be an ally in autumn for people who tend to get colds that settle in their lungs with the onset of fall, for people who find the transition from summer to fall difficult, and for people who are grieving. Grief is the emotion associated with the lungs and colon in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Autumn is the time for letting go, for releasing what we do not need anymore. It is the time of year when we say farewell to our gardens and migrating birds. Everything in nature is contracting, pulling inward and downward, preparing for winter. Supporting the health of our lungs with herbs such as mullein and garlic helps to prevent respiratory problems as we move from fall to winter.
Topically, mullein leaf can be used as a poultice or compress to ease the pain of arthritic joints and aching muscles, and to heal wounds, burns and bruises. A tea with mullein leaf, nettle, calendula, red clover, rosemary and yarrow is effective for soothing and healing hot spots on animals.
British Herbalist Anne McIntyre writes in her book The Complete Floral Healer about mullein as a flower essence. “Mullein again is the remedy of light, an inner light to guide us along our path. It is also a remedy for uprightness, honesty, moral conscience, particularly for those who feel weak or confused, unable to tune into their inner voice, or who are wrestling with their conscience. It is helpful when needing inner strength to withstand social pressures or trends, tempting one to lie either to oneself or to others, and to help sort out moral values. It can be taken for indecision, to clarify or hear better your inner voice, or to be guided by your inner light, and thus lead towards a greater fulfillment of your true potential. Mullein helps you to be true to yourself.”
About the author: Deb is the founder of Avena Botanicals and the Avena Institute in West Rockport, Maine; she also wrote The Roots of Healing – A Woman’s Book of Herbs. You can visit her website at www.avenaherbs.com. This article is for information purposes only; please consult a health care practitioner if you have serious medical problems.