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Mullein: Comforting Traveller

I believe plants have amazing stories to tell by way of their experiences and their journey through time. Weather it is St. Johns Wort, a plant that withstood the test of nearly being lost as a medicine due to an ego battle between herbalists and homeopaths, or yarrow, a plant that has been to war and healed the wounds of soldiers. Plants have a story.

Mullein is an age-old healer that has traveled far on its journey. The Greek physician, Dioscorides, first recorded it as an agent to heal the lungs nearly 2000 years ago. Since then, it has accumulated tales from the times of the Ancient Greeks, and watched African and European history. Mullein then bore witness to folks that settled here in the Colonies to become a major plant medicine of our continent and its original people, the American Indians.

Mullein grows in many environments. It enjoys water and space with plenty of sun, and often finds a home in meadows, on the edge of woods or cornfields. But mullein loves dry uncomfortable places too. It is a plant that becomes seemingly restless in the unchallenging territory of a cozy wooded forest, or a moist, friendly field. And so one finds it thriving on rocky outcroppings, and growing out of cracks in asphalt pavement on the side of the road.

History and namesake

Mullein, Verbascum thapsis, stands tall and stoic, with some flowering stalks reaching 10 feet high. It is of a genus of plants with over 200 species. It is a biennial that is native to many countries, most notably Europe, northern Africa and Asia.

The common name mullein is derived from the Middle English word moleyn, meaning soft. Verbascum is a twist on the Latin word barbascum, meaning bearded. This was to describe its furry foliage. The Ancient Greeks had another name for mullein. They called it flego and fluma, meaning “to set fire.” The leaves were rolled and dried, then used as wicks for oil lamps, and its stalks were used as torches burned at funerals.

European settlers brought mullein here for medicinal herb gardens as early as the 1600’s. By the 1800’s mullein had spread from the east coast to the west. It naturalized so easily that it fooled at least one botanist back in 1750 into believing it was a native plant. And the myth goes on today, as some folks still believe the same.

Native American Uses

The American Indians found mullein to be very useful. It is said that the European settlers first introduced the plant to them. But the American Indians developed their own relationship with the plant outside of what they learned from others. This is evident in their use of the root as medicine.

Many tribes employed the use of mullein leaf tea for coughs, colds, and rheumatism. They considered it to be analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and expectorant. The astringent and demulcent properties of the leaf tea were found useful in cases of diarrhea.

To reduce swelling and relieve pain, mullein leaf poultices were applied externally to sprains, bruises, and rheumatic pains. And a leaf well soaked in warm water was applied to swollen glands.

Smoking dried mullein leaves was done for management of respiratory illnesses. The dried leaves were rolled and smoked for asthma, bronchitis and tuberculosis. It was found to suppress the cough, and relieve pain and inflammation associated with these respiratory conditions.

Mullein leaf was a great ally in spiritual healing rituals as well, and was smoked or burned in combination with other plants for such. The Hopi smoked the leaves in formulas for fits of craziness, and those who were not in their right mind. There was also a formula of plants smoked for those with manipulative powers of witchcraft. While mullein leaf smudge was burned to revive someone who had gone unconscious. These rituals were done with great intent, and many prayers.

Mullein root had many more uses to the American Indians then the settlers. The root was dried, and made into teething necklaces for infants and toddlers. It was also made into a sweet tea for coughs and croup-a dry cough that persists as a result of the swelling of the larynx. An infusion of the root was taken for kidney troubles, and a leg bath was prepared in the event of water retention in the lower body. Soaks of the infused root were also used for athlete’s foot and infection.

Mullein As A Modern Plant Medicine

Mullein as a modern medicinal plant is an indispensable tool. Its soothing nature and ability to fight germs supports many functions of the body in illness and distress. The leaves and flowers are most noted historically with the Europeans and Greeks, but the roots are of notable importance as well, as we have learned from the American Indians.

When one looks at the history of this plant, there is some discrepancy of use. Different cultures of people found great benefit in different parts of the plant. And so, mullein’s story has some contradictions. But its effectiveness as a plant medicine goes unchallenged.

The Leaf As Medicine

The soft leaf of mullein extinguishes the fire of a hot dry cough, making it useful for lung conditions such as croup and bronchitis, where the pain and swelling of a cough impedes relaxation and healing. It does the same for a sore throat that feels dry and hot. Mullein leaf soothes irritated mucus membranes, is astringent, anti-inflammatory and acts as a mild expectorant and sedative, quieting spasms.

Because of these qualities, I find mullein leaf useful in formulas for wet coughs as well. Its astringent nature helps balance a cough that over produces mucus. It is also important to include in a formula for a wet cough something that soothes and moistens, so as to prevent a condition from moving in the opposite direction. A demulcent in a wet cough formula can help keep this from happening. For either wet or dry cough, mullein leaf can either be taken as a dried leaf tea, well strained with a coffee filter to remove any hair particles from the plant, or in a tincture form.

Mullein leaf, dried and taken as a tea, is also is also an excellent astringent, indicated for blood in the lungs or bowels with diarrhea. It may also, in these instances, act as an antispasmodic and relieve pain. The leaves are also considered diuretic, and are useful in formulas for urinary tract infections where a non-irritating diuretic is needed.

External use of dried mullein leaf is just as beneficial. A poultice of dried leaves reduces pain and inflammation in cases of ulcers, hemorrhoids, and swellings, just as the American Indians found.

The Europeans found that smoking dried mullein leaf relieved the symptoms of asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory illnesses. It is said to stop the spastic cough, reduce inflammation, and expectorate mucus. I have known some who found great benefit in this, and others who did not.

The Flower

Mullein flowers possess many of the same properties as the leaves, but are not as well known for such uses. Some have found them to be just as effective for soothing respiratory tract illnesses, but note they lack the ability to expectorate. The flowers are antispasmodic, demulcent, mucilaginous and nervine. Some believe the flowers to be more sedative, and find the best results when treating respiratory illness to use the flowers in combination with the leaves as a tea well strained. A distillation of the flowers essential oil has been found useful in cases of burns, and ringworm. While the mullein flower infused oil is best suited for earaches, frost bite and eczema of the ear canal. A tea made from mullein flower and strained well is also useful for colic or intestinal spasms.

There is new data to suggest that mullein flower tincture or tea is effective against the herpes simplex virus, especially in women that have monthly outbreaks that are triggered by an estrogen surge before ovulation. While there is not a lot of proof on this one, it is certainly worth a try.

The Root

Mullein root is not known for its uses as widely as the leaf and flower. It is an antispasmodic and sedative, and has proven useful in cases of Bell’s palsy, and TMJ. As a diuretic and urinary astringent, it has been successfully used for incontinence, and bedwetting in children, as it tones the wall of the bladder. It takes at least 6 weeks to see results. While I have seen it work, I have also witnessed it fail for such use.

Mullein, with its soft supportive manner, is a wise and powerful healing spirit. It is a plant that has released many from pain, suffering and discomfort. One could say it is a plant on a journey. And whether that journey is rough or easy, mullein seems at home.

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  • I planted some in the yard last fall. 2 survived they are beautiful plants plus useful !!