Herb to Know: Mullein


| August/September 2004



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Genus: Verbascum thapsus
Family: Scrophulariaceae

• Biennial

Versatile, fuzzy mullein is a gardener’s friend, an herbalist’s delight and an engineering marvel all on its own. Part of the snapdragon family, mullein’s flowers are flat and open, unlike the irregular “dragon faces” of snapdragons. Within the Scrophulariaceae, the genus Verbascum consists of about 300 species native to Europe, West and Central Asia, and North Africa. Most species are tall, stout biennials with large leaves and flowers in long terminal spikes. The species best known among herbalists is the homely but useful common mullein, V. thapsus.

First-year plants form a rosette of large, velvety leaves up to 1 foot long. In the second year, a velvety flowers spike grows to 8 feet tall. The stalk has alternate leaves that clasp the stem, a nifty 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 also is applied to other members of the genus, probably is derived from the Latin mollis, meaning soft, referring to the woolly leaves and stalk, which are covered with branching hairs. Alternatively, the name could come from the Latin malandrium, meaning malanders, a disease of cattle for which mullein was used as a remedy. The leaves also are referred to as bunny’s ears and flannelleaf. The dried down on the leaves and stem ignites readily and once was 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.

The Latin, Verbascum, may be derived from barbascum, or 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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