By Kathleen Hale, Western Reserve Unit of the Herb Society of America
Mullein (Verbascum thapsis) is a furry plant with beautiful spikes of sunny, yellow flowers. It is biennial, like foxglove (Digitalis), so you get those pretty flowers in the second year of the plant’s growth.
Although it has a large family, at least 250 varieties, it was not a North American native. It was introduced in the 18th century and now grows wild. It likes sunny edges of wild spaces. And, if you want to collect the flowers, there lies the problem. I have sometimes spotted a likely specimen growing along the side of a dry, sunny field, and waited for it to get just right, only to come back to find that some overzealous person had come along and mowed the grass. Honestly.
There have historically been a lot of reasons to collect mullein (pronounced muh’ lin).
The soft rosette that appears in the first year’s growth of the plant lives up to one of its common names, “velvet plant.” Its botanical name is also a reference to its furriness: from the Latin barbascum meaning “bearded.”
Some people have a sensitivity to the dense hair-like fibers on mullein leaves, so be cautious until you know if you are one of those people. It’s recommended to filter any products derived from the leaves, like teas and oils.
And then, there is its occasional use as “Cowboy’s Toilet Paper.” Enough said.
In the second year, the plant raises a tall stem of symmetrical flowers. Those flowers open sequentially along the stalk. Eventually, they are replaced by a small fruit, filled with seeds.
This long stalk of flowers has been used as the foundation of a torch, when dried and dipped in tallow or wax. From this comes one of mullein’s common names, “Hag’s Candle.” Either witches were the primary users of this light source, or they were afraid of it. That’s the way with witch stories.
An infusion of the flowers in warm oil has long been valued in the treatment of earaches and infections, especially in children. It is believed to have anti-bacterial properties and to sooth inflammation. There have been many uses of mullein, foliage and flower, to ease discomforts of the skin.
The roots have dug deep in the meantime, breaking up poor, compacted soil. When the plant dies, its remains enrich the earth. Other plants benefit, and move into the space. And the mullein moves on, like a superhero whose job here is done.
Recently, cultivars of Verbascum have been introduced, sporting a range of flower colors. ‘Gainsborough’, ‘Letitia’ and ‘Pink Domino’ have gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. But I don’t know if the fancy varieties have the same superpowers. So I’ll go on looking for mullein in rough, abandoned places. It’s the romantic in me.