By Sandra Skrei
Common Mullein – Verbascum thapsus
Have you ever Googled ‘mullein benefits’ and then several clicks later realize it’s 1:00 AM not the 9:00 PM you thought it was? I have!
For (plant nerd) grins I thought I would re-Google ‘mullein benefits’ to see what popped up as I prepared myself to share my fascination with mullein. I challenged myself to read just one of the 906,000 (!) posts by reading the first author I recognized. Sixteen different uses were mentioned, from the familiar respiratory ailments and treating earaches (mullein oil is on most pharmacy shelves), to dysentery, gout, tuberculosis, poultices and a skin softener, — and that’s just in the introduction!
Who can resist walking past a mullein plant without rubbing the furry, fuzzy leaves? If you grew up wandering the countryside, you may have first come to know mullein as Cowboy Toilet Paper. If you are one of the unfortunate people who reacts badly to the ‘fuzz’ (called contact dermatitis) that was probably your only touching moment! I learned it as Flannel Leaf, other common names give clues to more uses: beggar’s blanket, velvet plant, felt-wort, tinder plant, candlewick plant, witch’s candle, Aaron’s rod, lady’s foxglove, donkey’s ears, hag’s taper, candlewick plant, torches, and Quaker rouge.
I’d like to share with you a rather heated discussion with a radically purist native plant nerd whose goal is to eradicate mullein from the Texas landscape.
In a rare-for-me defense of a non-native, potentially invasive plant, mullein was deemed an Herb of Protection, her benefits first described in the 40-50 CE/AD Greek ‘de Materia Medica’ which is still referenced today. Why wouldn’t the early European colonists, relying on 1500 years of pharmaceutical knowledge, carry mullein seeds with them so they would have access to their home-grown pharmacy in the unknown world they were, in their own way, invading? As mullein spread, so did indigenous knowledge as mullein has been documented in several North American tribal traditions across the country. The Native American Ethnobotanical Database lists 99 uses by 23 tribes. Respiratory issues, veterinary care (blowing smoke up sheep’s noses to de-worm) and even making a necklace out of the root for teething babies were noted.
Mullein is NOT native to the Americas, but it has been incorporated into our culture. As useful as it is, I would hope people would turn to harvesting it as a means of controlling it should it get out of hand.
One of the universal uses for mullein is for respiratory tract support. If you rub a cut leaf, you will notice a slightly slimy feel, herbalists call that property mucilaginous. Mucilaginous plants support healthy mucous linings throughout our bodies. Analyzing mullein’s plant compounds reveals several polyphenols, known mainly for antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Since 2019, mullein has been in the spotlight for relief from respiratory ailments, so much so that many people dry and crumble the leaves into a smoking blend. Not being a fan of any kind of smoking, my preferred mullein delivery device is tea. I’m lucky enough to walk outside and pick fresh, chemical-free leaves from young plants, I just have to make sure the cows, hogs, or dogs haven’t been ‘watering’ them.
Searching on ‘How to Make Mullein Tea’ turned up 424,000 hits! Looks like I am part of a large community of mullein tea fans, the cost of admission is free and easy! If you find yourself in the company of newly forming mullein plants, especially in the morning after the dew has dried, gently harvest some of the youngest leaves. I like to collect leaves that are not bigger than my hand from several plants so that I don’t do harm to any one plant. I like making tea from the fresh leaves, which I just tear into small pieces (think increasing the surface area for the boiling water to extract from), boil and then steep for 10-15 minutes to get a golden-brown color, flavor, and aroma. I filter through a tea strainer, then enjoy both the warmth and flavor. If I feel a cold coming on, have a sore throat or am coughing, I will add lemon and honey.
When you are nothing short of miserable, you can cover your head and the steaming pot, careful not to burn yourself and breathe in the vapors, a gentler way of smoking! You can also dry the leaves or buy the tea ready to go. A good ration is 1-2 teaspoons dried leaves, or 1-2 tablespoons fresh leaves to 1 cup boiling water. Drying the leaves gives you a handy supply, and actually provides a stronger extraction as dried cell walls break down faster, releasing their magic plant medicine faster.
As with all medicinal plants, try a very small amount first to test for allergic reactions (some people do get a stinging like reaction to the fuzz), and wait until you are not pregnant or nursing to try. If you don’t live where you can safely wildcraft mullein, try mullein in your landscape or garden. The Prairie Rose Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas’ grows mullein in their demonstration garden on the Glen Rose Square. Mullein makes a great backdrop plant as the flower stalk can grow to be as tall as 6 feet! The flower stalk appears during the second year of growth, so for the first 18 months or so, you will have a relatively low growing silver-gray rosette which reminds me of a softer, plumper, gentler version of a yucca. You can wild harvest seeds or buy seeds to plant.
Have you ever gone down the research rabbit hole and thought, “One day, I have to try this?” I have! Did you notice that three of the common names alluded to torches? Watch out for future newsletters and event emails, we’ll let you know when we try making and using mullein torches so you can try, too! On your next High Hope visit, look for areas that have been burned or mowed, gently collect some leaves, and make some tea! Let us know you tried a cup by tagging us on Instagram @BuildingHighHope or on our High Hope Ranch Facebook page!