(Verbascum thapsus)


Illustrations and photos by "Wildman," clipart from

Mullein - Pen & Pencil Drawing

Mullein, Basal Rosette

These soft, fuzzy leaves are a favorite for young children.

After exposure to countless associations between this common, widespread medicinal herb and Native American culture, I mistakenly thought this herb was native. I was astonished when I finally learned that mullein is Eurasian: After its early arrival on these shores, the Indians adapted it. They had discovered the same healing properties that made it a mainstay in European folk medicine for thousands of years.

The name "mullein" has two possible derivations: It either comes from comes from mollis, which means soft in Latin, or the Latin word mulandrum, which comes from melanders and means leprosy, an illness this plant was used to treat. Verbascum means "mullein" in Latin. It derives from the word barbascum, which means "with beard." Roman men shaved, barbarians didn't, and mullein is certainly as woolly as any barbarian youíll ever encounter. The species name is thapsus because mullein resembles the European genus Thaspia, named after an ancient town in present-day Tunisia.

Mullein is a biennial: The first year the leaves form a basal rosette, with strikingly large, flannel-like, velvety-woolly, long-oval, gray-green, leaves nearly two feet long. When I bring this plant to school classes, the children first think it's artificial.

Mullein Basal Rosette

Mullein, Basal Rosette

Mullein's first leaves spread into a circle along the ground, sheltering the plant and maximizing the sunlight.

The second year, the basal leaves precede a stout, erect flowerstalk that may reach six feet in height.
Mullein in Flower

Mullein in Flower

Note that few flowers bloom at any time on the tall, erect, unnbranched flower stalk.

The stalkless flowers bloom sequentially from late spring to early fall, growing in long, tight, spikes.
Mullein Flower Stalk

Mullein Flower Stalk

Yellow flowers in bloom are scattered along the flower stalk.

They're yellow, with five radially-symmetrical petals, about 1-1/2" across.
Mullein Flower

Mullein Flower with Insect Pollinators

Bright, showy flowers attract insects.

The pointed, elongated, globular fruits are five-parted woody capsules, 3/8" long, opening toward the tips. The dead, brown fruit stalks stand out in the winter.
Mullein Fruit Stalk

Mullein Fruit Stalk Skeleton

The persistent, conspicuous seed stalk makes it easy to spot mullein in the winter. Caution: The seeds inside the woody fruit capsules are poisonous.

Mullein grows in old fields, roadsides, and disturbed habitats throughout the United States It does well in dry, sandy conditions, especially in alkaline soil, so itís especially common near the seashore. Archeologists sometimes look for Indian sites where thereís lots of mullein, because the lime from the Indian shell piles increases soil alkalinity, encouraging this plant to proliferate.

Mullein tea provides vitamins B-2, B-5, B-12, and D, choline, hesperidin, PABA, sulfur, magnesium, mucilage, saponins, and other active substances.

People use the tea as a beverage, but it's best known as one of the safest, most effective herbal cough remedies. Mullein is an expectorant, and a tonic for the lungs, mucus membranes, and glands. An infusion is good for colds, emphysema, asthma, hay fever, and whooping cough. Strain the infusion through a cloth, or the hairs may get stuck in your throat and make you cough even more. Laboratory tests have shown that itís anti-inflammatory, with antibiotic activity, and that it inhibits the tuberculosis bacillus. The Indians smoked dried mullein and coltsfoot cigarettes for asthma and bronchitis, and indications are that itís effective: I've observed it working for bronchitis.

The tea is also an astringent and demulcent. It's good for diarrhea, and it's been used in compresses for hemorrhoids since it was recommended by Dioscorides centuries ago. It's also supposed to help other herbs get absorbed through the skin. Pliny the Elder of ancient Rome, Gerard in sixteenth century England, the Delaware Indians, and country folk in the South, used the heated leaves in poultices for arthritis.

A tincture of the flowers is used for migraine headaches. An oil extract of the flowers, which contains a bactericide, is used for ear infections, although you should consult with a competent practitioner first, to avoid the possibility of permanent hearing loss if the herb doesnít work.

Roman ladies used them to die their hair blonde. Roman soldiers dipped the flowerstalks in tallow to make torches.

Women who were forbidden to use make-up for religious reasons rubbed the rough leaves of this rubrifacient on their cheeks, to create a beautiful red flush. People who spend time in the woods are attracted to mullein's large, velvety leaves when they run out of toilet paper, again creating a beautiful red flush on their cheeks.

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