Botanical Name: Verbascum thapsus
Common Names: Scots: Aaron’s rod, Shepherd’s club, White Mullein, Cuddy-lugs (Donkey’s ears), Hag’s Taper, Cowboy’s Toilet Paper
Family: Scrophulariaceae – the Figwort family
Parts Used: Dried leaves and flowers, some use of the root.
Botany & Identification: A biennial plant growing a downy basal rosette of leaves in its first year, followed by a tall flowering spike in the summer of the following year. The yellow blooms reach up to 2m. Mullein is a plant of dry, sandy and chalky soils often seen in hedgerows and field boundaries.
Native to Europe, North Africa and Asia, the herb is also naturalised in parts of North America. Common in Britain except in the far North and West. Julie Brunton-Seal and Matthew Seal state that any of our tall and yellow flowered Mulleins, and the White Mullein (Verbascum album) can be used medicinally.
Growing & Harvesting: As Mullein is a biennial, the leaves are harvested in the first year before they brown. Some suggest harvesting the leaves in the spring of the second year when about to flower so identification is correct. Flowers are collected in the second year between July-September in dry weather. Henriette Kress suggests harvesting the whole flowering spikes and hanging them to dry, then using gloves to protect the hands from tiny hairs to strip the stalk and store the flowers in jars. Dry Mullein in the shade.
Edibility & Nutrition: The leaf contains Potassium and Calcium and although leaves and flowers are edible, it isn’t common.
Constituents: Flavonoids, mucilage, gum, resin, bitter glycosides, iridoid monoterpenes, triterpene saponins, volatile oils
Energetics & Qualities: Cool & Moist. Restorative, Softening, Dispersive
Tastes: Salty & mucilaginous (leaf). Flowers slightly Sweet.
Medicinal Actions: Expectorant, Anti-catarrhal, Demulcent, Anti-inflammatory, Antispasmodic, mild Diuretic, mild Sedative, Vulnerary.
Uses: Herbalist Matthew Wood describes Mullein as ‘one of the premier cough and respiratory remedies of the European tradition’, with David Hoffmann stating that the herb ‘is useful in most conditions that affect this (respiratory) system.’ The herb is indicated for dry tissue states, or where liquid is isolated in pockets around the body for example in abscesses or swollen glands. The salty mucilage released by the leaves is used as an emollient to soften dry tissues. In Scotland the herb was used to treat coughs and tuberculosis as well as for piles, diarrhoea and bleeding of the bowls and lungs. Mullein has a primary action on the respiratory system, but also strengthens the nerves, digestion and urinary system, helping to relieve pain.
A soothing respiratory herb
- Indicated in dry, tickly coughs. The herb nourishes as well as strengthens.
- Mullein tones the mucus membranes of the respiratory system, reducing inflammation whilst stimulating fluid production.
- Used in old coughs where the the hairs of the lungs are worn down or inflamed
- Useful in sore throats, hoarseness, tonsillitis, mumps, bleeding from the lungs
- With a dilating and moistening action on the lungs, Mullein helps asthma caused by bronchial tension
- David Hoffmann suggests combining with Coltsfoot for bronchitis where it is specifically indicated.
Upwards & outwards
- Mullein opens the lungs, reducing tightness and lubricating the mucosa
- Useful where there is tightness in the chest, throat or voice box
- Tightness in the sinuses or a sense of it in the brain. William LeSassier states the herb is for ‘intellectuals and hot air people.’
- This upwards and outwards movement is reflected in the plant’s habit of quickly shooting upwards from its basal rosette of leaves in the second year.
Muscular & skeletal remedy
- Lubricates the connective tissues of the joints and so improves cartilage health
- Its opening action disperses internal fluids into surrounding tissues and therefore lubricates muscles, bones, ligaments and joints
- Used for complex fractures where the bone needs to be lubricated so it can move into place
- Irritated or pinched nerve tracts can be eased from pain alongside inflexibility and pain in the spine
- Herbalist Jim MacDonald writes that the ‘intelligence’ of the root to push the plant upwards in its second year can be harnessed to straighten the spine
Relaxes & Soothes Pain:
- Helps soothe painful injuries to nerve rich areas
- Calms inflamed and irritated nerves and so works well to ease coughs, cramps and spasms. Its anti-inflammatory and demulcent properties soothe the tissues.
- The salty mucilage released by a leaf infusion brings water to hardened and isolated places.
- Mullein flower infused oil is reputably the best natural remedy for earache. The oil can also be used for nerve pain, piles and chest rubs. Henriette Kress uses the whole flower stalk wasting nothing – the flowers, seeds and stalk is thin enough.
History & Folklore:
- Mullein has a long history of use and has been seen to have magical powers by many civilisations
- There are records of the leaves used as tapers by the Romans, in Medieval funerals, and by witches, hence one of it’s old names Hag’s Taper.
- In the past the fresh leaves have been used as toilet paper, nappies, food wrappings and insoles. The small hairs on the dried leaves become scratchy.
- Hildegard of Bingen writes in the 1100s of Mullein and Fennel in equal parts cooked in wine for hoarseness.
Preparations & Dosages: The leaves as infusion. 1-2 tsp dried herb in a cup of boiling water. Repeated 3 times daily. If using dried leaves strain through a fine mesh to remove any loose hairs which can cause irritation.
Tincture: 1-4ml, 3 times daily.
Oil: Flowers extracted into olive oil in the sunshine. 1-3 drops of oil in or behind the ear as needed.
Poultice for removing splinters, drawing boils, soothe back ache and lymph swellings. Also helpful for broken bones that can’t be set eg toes and ribs.
Cautions & Contraindications: In its first year Mullein can look similar to the toxic Foxglove. If unsure wait till the flowering spike appears in the second year and pick young leaves then. Mullein is covered in tiny hairs, so strain any internal medicine through a fine mesh like muslin.
Matthew Wood (2008) The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants
Tess Darwin (1996) The Scot’s Herbal. Birlinn.
David Hoffmann (1991) The New Holistic Herbal, Element.
Julie Brunton-Seal & Matthew Seal (2008) Hedgerow Medicine, Merlin Unwin Books
Henriette Kress (2013) Practical Herbs
Henriette Kress (2013) Practical Herbs 2