A very useful plant that grows wild around here in middle Tennessee is the common mullein. Its botanical name is Verbascum thapsus, but some of its common names are bunny’s ear, flannel leaf, candlewick plant and hag taper. These names give a clue to the look and feel as well as the history of the plant.
Bunny’s ear and flannel leaf are wonderful descriptions of the soft and fuzzy large leaves of mullein. In fact mullein may come from the Latin word mollis which means soft. However the name might also be related to the Latin malandrium, meaning malanders, which is a cattle disease for which mullein was used as a remedy. Candlewick plant refers to the use of the dried down of mullein leaves and stems to make lamp wicks. Perhaps hag taper comes from the belief that witches dipped mullein stems into tallow to make torches, or perhaps others used them to repel witches.
First year plants form a rosette of large, velvety leaves, incredibly up to one foot long! The second year a velvety flower spike grows to an impressive 8 feet tall. The stalk has alternate leaves that clasp the stems, thus directing rainwater down the stem to the roots. From June to September, five petaled yellow flowers 1/4 inch across 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 longer and smooth, produce the pollen that fertilizes the flower. The tall flower stalks have been called “Jacob’s staff,” “Jupiter’s staff” and “Aaron’s rod.”
Mullein leaves and flowers contain mucilage, which coats and soothes membranes when drunk as a tea. They also contain saponins, which make coughs more productive. Research has shown that the herb has strong anti-inflammatory activity, and lab studies suggest that mullein flower infusions have antiviral properties.
These wonderful actions support the traditional use of mullein tea for respiratory problems, such as chest colds, bronchitis and asthma. The high mucilage content gives mullein its emollient properties which I use as an ingredient in my cayenne ointment to help coat the skin and allow the cayenne to stay deeply into the cells and draw healing blood to the area. The anti-inflammatory action of both the cayenne and mullein help to lessen swelling. Mullein leaves can also be used as a poultice to reduce varicose veins and to relieve the itch of insect bites.
I make mullein flower oil using warm olive oil to help treat earaches caused by over production of earwax, as well as to sooth and reduce the swelling of hemorrhoids.
The plant’s hairs irritate skin and mucous membranes of some people. So before drinking a cup of mullein tea or before putting it all over your skin, use just a small amount of mullein to see if you react. You may want to strain the tea through a fine-weave cloth, such as cheese cloth, or a coffee filter to remove any stray hairs.
Mullein is drought-resistant and grows easily from seed. Sow a small pinch of seeds about 18 inches apart and 1/16 inch deep in ordinary, well-drained soil. Mullein prefers full sun, but will grow in light shade. Clumps of seedlings and low rosettes come up the first year. By the second year, the mature plants will be very tall. Mullein self-sows readily.