Today's featured plant is Common Mullein, Verbascum thapsus.
Common Mullein is also known as Great Mullein, Aaron's Rod, candlewick plant, flannel plant, flannel leaf, lungwort, feltwort, cowboy toilet paper, shepherd's staff, velvet dock, woolly mullein, torch plant, torches, miner's candle, big taper, blanket mullein, “Hig candlewick”, “Bullicks lungwort”, “Hare's-beard”, “Ice-leaf”.”Beggar's blanket”, “Moses' blanket”, “Poor Man's blanket”, “Our Lady's blanket” or “Old Man's Blanket”.
(There are more names, but this list is getting pretty long already. Do you get the impression this thing is pretty widespread?) Note: This is not the same plant as Lambs Ears (Stachys byzantina), which also has fuzzy leaves and grows low to the ground.)
Range and Identification of Common Mullein
Common mullein is native to Europe, but it is now found on every continent except Antarctica. (As I said, it gets around…) The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service provides a range map, but it's really found pretty much everywhere in the U.S..
The plant is known as a colonizer of open disturbed soils. The Wisconsin DNR lists it as an invasive, but they have an awful lot of plants listed as invasive. Okay – non-native – still, it's been around so long, does it really matter at this point? They do say it can be invasive in the plant detail page, but I haven't found that to be the case in my area. It prefers dry, sandy soils, but can grow (really HUGE) in rich garden soil, and even grow in marginal soils such as chalk and limestone. It can be found in neglected meadows, forest openings, pastures, fence rows, roadsides, and industrial areas. (WI DNR)
Plant height is 2-6′ (60-180 cm) (the happy monsters in my garden last year were pushing seven feet). The leaves are large, oval and fuzzy. As you can see in the photo below, a large happy specimen in my garden has leaves larger than my shoe, which is a size twelve. Leaves are 12-15 inches long (or longer) and covered with velvety hairs. When the flower stalk emerges, leaves cling directly to the stalk – there are no side branches.
Common mullein is a biennial, which means that it takes two years to reach maturity. The first year, plants form a rosette, as shown above. The second year, plants put up a single tall flower spike. Plants reproduce solely by seed. Here's a nice one from last year's garden. The wooden posts next to it were around 4 feet tall, so you can tell it was pretty big.
The plant has many small yellow flowers. They begin opening at the lower end of the flower spike and work their way up to the tip of the spike, not unlike a gladiola. (If you're collecting flowers to use for herbcrafting you will need to pick over multiple days.) Flowers have five petals. (Wildflowers of Wisconsin) One plant can produce of 100,000 seeds, which can stay viable up to 100 years in the soil, so I don't generally let them seed out in the garden. I'm sure there are enough seeds hanging around from previous generations.
Common Mullein as Food and Habitat for Wildlife
Fairfax County Public Schools has a beautiful page on mullein with photos and a discussion of how wildlife uses mullein. Their site explains:
Only a few animals use mullein for food. Certain species of thrips, stinkbugs, weevils, and leaf bugs will eat mullein leaves; but these are insects which were brought over from Europe. Short-horned Grasshoppers, such as the Differential Grasshopper, will also eat leaves.
American Goldfinches, Indigo Buntings, and a few other birds eat mullein seeds.
Common Mullein provide shelter for insects in the winter. Since rosettes survive through the cold weather, leaves provide warm and protection for ladybugs, plant bugs, and black bugs, among others.
Hummingbirds sometimes use the soft leaves to line their nests.
Many insects come to mullein flowers for nectar. Bumble bees, honey bees, and hover flies help pollinate these plants.
Several species of fungi become parasites of Common Mullein, including Powdery Mildew.
Medicinal Uses of Common Mullein
The Alternative Nature Herbal discusses the medicinal properties of mullein. (Please visit their site to view the full article.)
Great Mullein has been used as an alternative medicine for centuries, and in many countries throughout the world, the value of Great Mullein as a proven medicinal herb is now backed by scientific evidence. Some valuable constituents contained in Mullein are Coumarin and Hesperidin, they exhibit many healing abilities. Research indicates some of the uses as analgesic, antihistaminic, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antioxidant, antiviral, bacteristat, cardio-depressant, estrogenic, fungicide, hypnotic, sedative and pesticide are valid.
An infusion is taken internally in the treatment of a wide range of chest complaints and also to treat diarrhea and bleeding of the lungs and bowels. The leaves, root, and the flowers are anodyne, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent, demulcent, diuretic, emollient, expectorant, nervine, and vulnerary.
Mullein oil is a very medicinal and valuable destroyer of disease germs. An infusion of the flowers in olive oil is used as earache drops, or as a local application in the treatment of piles and other mucous membrane inflammations. This infusion is a strong antibacterial. The oil being used to treat gum and mouth ulcers is very effective. A decoction of the roots is used to alleviate toothache and also relieve cramps and convulsions. It is also used in alternative medicine for the treatment of migraine headaches accompanied with oppression of the ear.
The whole plant possess slightly sedative and narcotic properties. The seeds are considered toxic. They have been historically used as a narcotic and also contain saponins.
The dried leaves are sometimes smoked to relieve the irritation of the respiratory mucus membranes, and the hacking cough of consumption. They can be employed with equal benefit when made into cigarettes, for asthma and spasmodic coughs in general. Externally, a medicinal poultice of the leaves is applied to sunburn, ulcers, tumors and piles.
I have used a tea made from the dried leaves to calm a cough. We haven't had any ear aches or other ear problems since I started harvesting mullein, so I can't vouch for other uses. You can view how to dry the flowers and leaves in the post Wildcrafting 101. Mullein also contains coumarin and rotenone – a naturally occurring pesticide.
Other Uses of Common Mullein
The dried flower stalks were dipped in tallow and used as torches by Roman soldiers (and probably others as well). The leaves were placed in footwear as extra padding and to help keep feet warm. The leaves produce a mild irritation/redness when rub against the skin, which led to the plant being used in the Victorian age as rouge. Supposedly it's one of the best leaves to use to wipe your backside when you're out squatting in the woods, but I haven't yet tried this. 🙂
Mullein can also be using for dying. KingdomPlantae states that, “The flowers make a bright yellow dye, which can be used to dye hair or cloth. The addition of sulfuric acid will produce a color-fast green. If you then add an alkali, to raise the Ph, the dye becomes brown.”
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