Family: Scrophulariaceae, or Figwort.
Synonyms and Common names: Aaron’s rod, Adam’s flannel, beggar’s blanket, beggar’s stalk, blanket-leaf, blanket plant, bullocks lungwort, candlewick plant, common Mullein, cowboy's toilet paper, felt wort, great Mullein, hag’s taper, hedge-taper, Jacob’s staff, Jupiter’s staff, Mary's candle, Mullein dock, old man's flannel, our lady's flannel, Peter’s staff, Quaker rouge, shepherd’s clubs, shepherd’s staff, torches, velvet dock, velvet plant, and witch’s candle.
Description and Habitat:
Versatile, fuzzy Great Mullein is a gardener’s friend, a herbalist’s delight, and an engineering marvel all of its own.
It’s a member of the snapdragon family, although Great Mullein has flowers that are flat and open, unlike the irregular, dragon faces, of snapdragons. Within the Scrophulariaceae family, the genus Verbascum consists of about 300 species native to Europe, West and Central Asia, and North Africa. Most are tall, stout biennials with large leaves, and flowers in long terminal spikes. The species best-known among herbalists is the useful common Great Mullein, named Verbascum thapsus.
First-year plants form a rosette of large, velvety leaves up to 1 foot long. In the second year, a velvety flower spike grows up 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, appears five-petaled yellow flowers, 1/4 to 1 inch across, which bloom randomly in the dense, club-shaped terminal cluster. The three upper stamens, which are short and woolly, contain a sap that lures insects to the plant. The two lower stamens, which are long and smooth, produce the pollen that fertilizes the flower.
Great Mullein is native to Europe, northern Africa, and Asia, and introduced in the Americas and Australia. It prefers good drainage in the soil, and full sun to produce the flowers.
Here in the southeast of Britain Great Mullein grows in abundance on country lanes and by the side of busy roads.
Parts used: Dried leaves and flowers.
Collection and preparation: The Laves should be collected in me summer before they turn brown. Dry them in the shade.
Flowers should be gathered between mid-summer and early autumn during dry weather. They should be dried in the shade and can be dried with artificial heat, but no artificial light. If drying flowers become damp they will turn brown and become ineffective.
Constituents: Mucilage and gum, saponins, volatile oil, flavonoids including hesperidin and verbascoside, glycosides including aucubin.
Actions: Expectorant, demulcent, diuretic, sedative, vulnerary, anti-catarrhal, emollient, and pectoral.
Indications and Therapeutics:
Great Mullein is a very beneficial respiratory remedy and is useful in most conditions that affect this vital system.
It is an ideal remedy for toning the mucous membranes of the respiratory system, and reducing inflammation whilst stimulating fluid production, and thus facilitating expectoration.
It is considered to be specific in bronchitis, where there is a hard cough with soreness. Its anti-inflammatory and demulcent properties indicate its use in inflammation of the trachea and associated conditions. Chest colds, asthma
For external use, an extract made in olive oil is excellent in soothing and healing any inflamed surface.
Some people find the plant’s hair irritating to the skin, and to mucous membranes. It’s a good idea to see how you react to a small amount of Great Mullein before consuming it or smearing it on your body. And always strain any medication through the fine-weave cloth, or a coffee filter to remove any stray hairs, the Great Mullein is a very hairy herb.
Preparation and dosage:
Infusion: 1-2 teaspoonful of the dried herb and pour over 1 cupful of boiling water, leave to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes. Drink 3 times daily.
Tincture: 1-4ml in warm water, drink 3 times daily.
Additional comments and Folklore:
Old stalks of Great Mullein which has been left standing in a field look like brown candles, but in fact, Great Mullein was traditionally used as a cheap torch. The dry flowering stalk can simply be lit and carried as a light source. It works even better if dipped in tallow. The dry leaf and stem material will readily ignite, and so Great Mullein was used for lamp wicks before cheap cotton was available.
Although no-one else seems concerned about the hairs, Mrs. Grieve warned to filter Great Mullein an infusion carefully because the hairs of the leaves can be extremely irritating in the mouth. A more positive use for the irritating properties of the hairs was captured in the common name Quaker rouge. Quaker women were said to have rubbed Great Mullein leaves on their faces to make their cheeks pink.
After being soaked in water, the flowers were reportedly used by Roman ladies to dye their hair yellow, but that would apparently require gathering a lot of flowers.
Mrs. Grieves went on to say that ashes from the plant, made into soap, will restore hair that has become grey to its original colour. Great Mullein treated with sulfuric acid makes a permanent green dye, and when mordanted with iron or alum gives an olive shade of dye.
The seeds contain small amounts of rotenone and coumarins, and if eaten by fish they can make the fish inactive enough to be hand-caught, so the plant was used as a fishing aid.
Historically Great Mullein was considered a potent charm against demons, even though it was believed to be used by witches, and warlocks, in their brews and was said to be their preferred torch.
Odysseus used Great Mullein to protect himself from Circe. The online translation from Samuel Butler 1835-1902 says that it is the Great Mullein that the god Mercury gives to the traveller Odysseus, he can free his men from her enchantment.
An old folk story is that country folk in medieval England used Great Mullein to know if their lover was faithful or not. They bent the plant toward the lover's house. If it resumed a vertical position, all was well, but if the Great Mullein died, their love was untrue.
Great Mullein is a very visible and easily identified plant, with fairly clear records of it going back at least to Dioscorides 2000 years ago.
For healing of the respiratory system, it is without a doubt well worth remembering.