Herb to Know: Mullein


| August/September 1994





Verbascum thapsus (ver-BASS-kum THAP-suss)
• Family Scrophulariaceae
• Biennial

The genus Verbascum consists of about 300 species that are native to Europe, West and Central Asia, and North Africa. It belongs to the snapdragon family, but the flowers are flat and open, unlike the irregular “dragon faces” of snapdragons. Most species are tall, stout biennials with large leaves and flowers in long terminal spikes. The best-known species among herbalists is the homely but useful common mullein, V. thapsus.

Naturalized mullein is a common weed in most of the United States and Canada, growing in old dry fields, waste areas, and poor, dry soils along roadsides.

First-year plants form a rosette of large, velvety leaves up to a foot long. In the second year, a velvety flower spike grows to 8 feet tall. The stalk has alternate leaves that clasp the stem, an arrangement that directs rainwater down the stem to the roots. From June to September, five-petaled yellow flowers 1/4 to 1 inch across bloom ­randomly in the dense, club-shaped terminal cluster. The three upper stamens are short and woolly, the tiny hairs containing sap that may lure insects to the plant; the pollen produced by these stamens is eaten by insects and does not fertilize the flower. The two lower stamens are longer and smooth, and they produce the pollen that fertilizes the flower.

The common name mullein, which is also applied to other members of the genus, probably is derived from the Latin mollis, “soft”, referring to the woolly leaves and stalk, which are covered with branching hairs. Alternatively,­ the name could come from the Latin malandrium, “malanders”, a disease of cattle for which mullein was used as a remedy. The leaves are also referred to as bunny’s ears and flannelleaf. The dried down on the leaves and stem ignites readily and was once used for lamp wicks; candlewick plant is another old name. The name hag taper refers to beliefs that a torch made from a mullein stalk dipped in tallow either was used by witches or would repel them. The custom of using mullein stalks as torches (by ordinary folk) dates back at least to Roman times. Jacob’s staff, Jupiter’s staff, and Aaron’s rod are references to the tall flower stalk.

Verbascum, the Latin name for the herb, may be derived from the Latin barbascum, from barba, meaning “beard” and referring to the hairy leaves. Thapsus is the ancient name of a town in Sicily now called Magnisi.





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