• Verbascum thapsus (ver-BASS-kum THAP-suss)
• Family Scrophulariaceae
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.
Mullein’s alleged powers were far-reaching, if a bit contradictory. Some people believed that wearing the leaves would ensure conception, but others advocated placing a leaf in a shoe or sock to prevent it. Still others filled their shoes in winter with the fuzzy leaves for added insulation and perhaps to stimulate the circulation. The fertility/contraceptive properties of a shoe stuffed with mullein leaves can only be imagined.
The leaves and flowers contain mucilage, which is soothing to irritated membranes, and saponins, which make coughs more productive. Tests have also shown strong anti-inflammatory activity. Leaf or flower teas have been widely used to treat chest colds, bronchitis, and asthma. English farmers had their cattle drink it to prevent respiratory problems, hence the name bullock’s lungwort. Gerard reports that a decoction of the roots in red wine was good for bloody diarrhea (“bloudy flix”), and the Iroquois used a decoction of the roots and leaves to treat the same affliction. The Creek Indians drank a decoction of the roots for coughs. Native Americans of various tribes smoked the roots or the dried leaves to treat asthma. The Potawatomi also inhaled the smoke for catarrh, and the Hopi smoked the herb to dispel “fits” and witchcraft. Whether European settlers in America learned to use mullein from the Native Americans or vice versa is open to debate; many of the medicinal uses of mullein are similar and widely known in both the Old and New World.
Topical applications have been equally numerous and varied. The Cherokee rubbed mullein leaves in their armpits to treat “prickly rash”. Poultices of the leaves have been used to treat bruises, tumors, and rheumatic pains; treacle spread on a leaf was said to cure hemorrhoids. An ointment made by boiling the leaves in lard or oil is still used to treat skin irritations and itching hemorrhoids. An old-time hemorrhoid treatment called for exposing one’s nether parts twice daily to the smoke of burning frankincense and myrrh and then covering the area with a mullein leaf until the next treatment. The flower oil (made by steeping the flowers in olive oil kept warm in the sun, near a fire, or in fresh dung) has been used for treating earaches and, again, hemorrhoids.
Mullein leaves have been used in cosmetic preparations to soften the skin. “Quaker rouge” refers to the practice of reddening the cheeks by rubbing them with a mullein leaf. A yellow dye extracted from the flowers has been used since Roman times as a hair rinse as well as to dye cloth. Gray-haired people shampooed their hair with a soap made from the ashes of the plant in hopes of restoring it to its original color. The dried leaves can be used as a filler in potpourris. Gerard noted that figs do not putrefy when wrapped in mullein leaves. The leaves make a slightly bitter, aromatic beverage tea; a tea of the flowers is sweeter.
Like many other herbs, mullein is not entirely benign. The seeds have been used as a fish poison by poachers. The leaves contain rotenone and coumarin, and at least some people find that the hairs irritate the skin and mucous membranes. It’s a good idea to see how you react to a small amount of mullein before consuming or smearing on large quantities, and always strain the tea through fine-weave cloth or a coffee filter to remove any stray hairs.
Downy woodpeckers peck the dry stalks of mullein in search of seeds as well as the larvae, pupae, and adult stage of weevils that live there. Livestock won’t eat the leaves.
Mullein is easily grown from seed. Sow pinches of seed about 18 inches apart and 1/16 inch deep in ordinary, well-drained soil. A position in full sun is preferable, but dry shade will do. Thin clumps of seedlings to one per site. These will make low rosettes in their first year, but second-year plants can provide a tall vertical element at the back of the border. Mullein is drought-resistant and thus can be grown where water is limited. Mullein self-sows readily.
Several species with more shapely or woollier leaves and/or more eye-catching flower stalks are esteemed as garden flowers. They are hardy in zones 4 to 10. These include the biennials moth mullein (V. blattaria), with 3-foot stalks of light pink to white flowers, and V. bombyciferum, with silvery leaves and 5-foot stalks of sulfur yellow flowers. Greek mullein (V. olympicum), with large leaves and 8-foot branching stalks of large golden yellow flowers, may be perennial under favorable conditions. Purple mullein (V. phoeniceum) is a 3-foot perennial with long-blooming flowers; Chaix mullein (V. chaixii), another 3-foot perennial, has purple-centered yellow or white long-blooming flowers. In addition, many beautiful and showy hybrids have been developed; most of these are propagated vegetatively.
• Companion Plants, 7247 N. Coolville Ridge Rd., Athens, OH 45701. Catalog $2. Plants and seeds of Verbascum thapsus and several other species.
• The Flowery Branch, PO Box 1330, Flowery Branch, GA 30542. Catalog $2. Seeds of V. thapsus and many other species and cultivars.
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