Mullein verbascum thapsus
By Kahlee Keane
Mullein is a tall plant well-known for its soft fuzzy leaves.
As a child, I was introduced to this plant by my blind aunt who loved to visit a special garden established for the enjoyment of those not sighted. The garden was full of exotic aromas, sounds and textures. My favorite among them was Great Mullein, as Aunty called it. Looking back, I realize how privileged I was to experience the healing effects of nature so early in my life and in such a unique setting.
Name: Great or Common Mullein – Verbascum thapsus Part used: Leaves, flowers and root.
Habitat: Open uncultivated land, roadsides.
Physiological actions: demulcent, expectorant, anodyne, vulnerary.
Focus: The high content of mucilage and saponins found in the leaf along with the plant’s antibiotic qualities makes this herb ideal for the treatment of a broad range of respiratory ailments.
This plant has many folk names, some call it Velvet Plant, Candle Leaf, Indian Tobacco, even Blanket Leaf.
I find that the genus name – verbascum – spoken slowly, in deep tones, has just the right resonance for me, so verbascum it is.
A biennial introduced from Europe, verbascum develops a rosette in the first year, consisting of large, light-green leaves covered on both sides with soft hairs. In the spring of the second year, a solitary stem with tough, strong fibers enclosing a thin rod of white pith arises from the midst of the felted leaves.
The numerous, large spade-like leaves become smaller as they ascend the stalk creating an overall pyramid shape to the whole plant. Each leaf tightly clasps the stem as they alternate up the stalk. The strong mid-rib of each leaf keeps them erect creating a valuable channel for water to travel from each level towards the stem and thus to the roots. This design of nature often proves to be a necessity for the survival of verbascum since its favourite habitat is arid areas with dry sandy soils.
The fine hairs that cover the leaves have several functions; to protect and keep moisture within plant cells; prevent creeping insects from attacking the plant and to irritate the mouths animals that may attempt to browse upon them.
Smallish yellow flowers bloom sporadically on the sturdy densely crowded cob-like spike creating rather a ragged appearance. With an intermittent flowering pattern, each plant is able to attract many types of pollinating insects for an extended period of time, thus optimizing its chances at propagation. Although the fruits are crowded together and may be difficult to distinguish, a close examination will reveal the two-part capsule characteristic of the Figwort family.
A prolific seed producer, one plant can develop many thousands of seeds, Mullein freely distributes them by shaking them out when wind rattles the dry flowerheads or they are disturbed by passing animals. Just shake one stalk over a sheet of paper to see how many seeds fall out!
Medicinal Uses of Verbascum
Medicinally, Verbascum is an expectorant (expelling mucous from lungs and throat), demulcent (soothing, relieving inflammation), vulnerary (promoting cell growth and repair), as well as an anodyne (relieving pain.)
The leaf and flower are very effective remedies for hay fever and similar allergies by providing a mucilaginous protection to mucous surfaces. This protective layer physically prevents the absorption of allergens through those membranes. During a particularly strong exposure to a potent allergen, this extra protection may make the difference between most allergenic particles being absorbed creating distress or only a few making it through.
Verbascum’s high content of mucilage and saponins renders this herb ideal for the treatment of respiratory ailments, from coughs and colds to emphysema, asthma and whooping cough. In addition to the soothing effect imparted by the mucilage, it possesses good antibiotic properties.
The root, boiled into a decoction, is said to be useful for the treatment of bladder incontinence.
Steeping the flowers in olive oil produces a fixed oil useful as a remedy for ear infections, hemorrhoids, bronchial inflammation, chest congestion, bruises, sprains, swollen joints and arthritis.
There are several ways to prepare Verbascum’s medicine.
A simple tea from the leaf is effective as long as you strain the brew through fine mesh to keep out those pesky hairs.
Or, the leaves may be dried, crushed and smoked to relieve irritation and congestion of the respiratory mucous membranes.
have encountered people who balk at the idea of inhaling the herbal smoke, but the fact remains that this is one of the most direct and effective ways to treat the lungs. When it comes to using herbal smoke as medicine it is important to remember that the chemical constituents are not carcinogens like nicotine in tobacco. If you still don’t want to inhale herbal smoke directly you can use it as a smudge by smoldering it in the room where you are resting.
For those interested in making their own herbal smoke:
~ Dry the leaf at a constant temperature – note that the midrib makes it difficult to dry easily so you may want to remove it.
~ Crush the dried leaves until fluffy, roll and smoke or place in a fire proof dish and smudge.
A few small strips of red willow bark will give your mix a wonderful aroma.
Kahlee Keane, Root Woman, is an educator and eco-herbalist. Her books, courses and medicine walks stress the sustainable use of medicinal plants while teaching others to make and use the medicines that are their birthright.She is the founder of Save Our Seneca and the Seneca Awareness Project.
Kahlee has published over a dozen books on medicinal native plants and writes for several newspapers and magazines in North America.