Weed of the Month: Mullein
When my colleague at the Red Hook Community Farm informed me that she had added a mullein plant to our bee garden, I was delighted. Generally considered a weed, Verbascum thapsus is a striking and readily manageable plant with loads of educational and practical uses.
Though a native of Eurasia, mullein doesn’t deserve the vilification often reflexively bestowed on nonnative plants that have naturalized here. Its preference for disturbed soil, its drought tolerance, and its juicy flowers and feltlike leaves all offer important ecological services for the local environment.
First off, just look at it! Mullein’s first year of growth as a biennial is a rosette of pale green, fuzzy leaves that may span only a few inches across or be several feet wide. The second year, a flower spike emerges—some grow up to six feet high—with bright yellow flowers favored by bees and other pollinators. In tiny sidewalk cracks, open lots, and dry, rocky roadsides, mullein cheerfully appears without overwhelming the landscape, unlike some of its weedy brethren. In fact, a lone plant or small colony may appear in a disturbed area, live out its two-year lifecycle, and then never appear again as other plants emerge.
The bloom patterns on the mullein’s flower stalk are fascinating to observe throughout the summer. Each individual flower lasts no more than a day. A few open at a time, starting from the bottom of the stalk and moving toward the top, in successive, overlapping spirals. Because the flowers aren’t all open at the same time, the flower stalk does tend to look a bit scraggly—at once partially in bloom and partially in decline. But while you’re looking at the spike, do a pollinator survey to see how many different species of bee, wasp, fly, and bird are coming by for a snack!
In addition to its value to pollinators, mullein has been used by humans for centuries for everything from lining shoes to warding off the evil eye. The stalks have been used for candles, torches, and lamp wicks. Others have observed the flowers to predict the weather. Fisherman were known to throw the seeds, which contain rotenone, in the water to stun fish for easy catching.
The flowers can be used as a yellow dye, and the crushed leaves work as DIY rouge. The medicinal uses for mullein have included pulmonary, skin, respiratory, digestive, and circulatory remedies.
For respiratory ailments, mullein appears to a be particularly popular treatment. Though brought to North America by Europeans, Native Americans apparently adopted the plant as an additive to tobacco. Smoking this mixture was said to be an effective cough treatment. I am a novice in herbalism, but I hope to try a recipe for cough syrup using mullein, red clover, white pine, cherry bark, and honey that I read about in Pamela Jones’s Just Weeds. The key ingredients are in their summer prime, so now’s the time to collect!
The Weed of the Month series explores the ecology and history of the common wild plants that most gardeners consider weeds.
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Saara Nafici is the executive director of Added Value/Red Hook Community Farm. She is also the former coordinator of the Garden Apprentice Program at Brooklyn Botanic Garden and a longtime activist, feminist, bicyclist, naturalist, and youth educator. Follow her weedy plant adventures on Instagram.
What Is Mullein: Learn About Growing Mullein Uses And Disadvantages
You’ve likely seen mullein plants growing in fields and along roadsides. They’re often attractive, with tall spikes of yellow flowering rosettes. This biennial plant, Verbascum thapsus, was historically used as an herbal treatment for coughs, congestion, chest colds, bronchitis, and inflammation. Native Americans and soldiers during the Civil War era made teas from leaves of mullein plants to treat asthma. During the 1800’s, settlers used it in their compounds to treat tuberculosis.
Information About Growing Mullein
Common mullein plants are large, erect specimens with huge, furry leaves and tall stalks of yellow flower rosettes. The attractive foliage and flowers, as well as mullein uses, lead some to grow mullein in gardens. However, common mullein produces seeds prolifically, leaving them for decades before germination. Seeds often germinate in disturbed areas of roadways, fields, and riverbanks.
This may lead the gardener to wonder, “What is mullein?” and “Should I think of growing mullein in gardens?” Common mullein in gardens is considered a noxious and invasive weed in many states, but more than 300 varieties of ornamental mullein plants can grow in the garden or natural areas without abundant reseeding.
How to Grow Mullein in Gardens
Learning how to grow mullein is easy; just watch it grow once it has sprouted, if you have the common type. Varieties of mullein, or velvet plants, in gardens need a little more care.
Mullein plants of the common variety can grow as tall at 10 feet (3 m.) when flowering. Once you’ve planted mullein in gardens, expect to spend time removing fuzzy rosettes if you don’t want it to spread. Remove the flower stalk before seeds have dispersed to avoid abundant spread. Hybrid types of mullein in the garden are not as invasive as the common type.
Grouped together and called ornamental mullein, hybrid varieties are more suitable when growing mullein in gardens. Flowers in colors of white, pink, lavender, and yellow compliment the sunny garden. Wand mullein is another option for the sunny flower bed. Ornamental mullein uses include any area with good drainage and full sun. Flower stalks are striking when in bloom.
Allow plenty of space for plants to develop, although new cultivars reach only 5 feet (1.5 m.), with some bred to be only 18 inches (46 cm.) in height. Most hybrids are biennials or short-lived perennials.
Now that you’ve learned what is mullein, you can make an informed decision before growing it or letting it stay in your landscape.
Medicinal Weeds: The Many Virtues Of Mullein
You almost can’t miss it; mullein, or Verbascum Thapsus , is a lovely plant with yellow spikes as flowers that can grow up to seven feet tall! The bi-annual weed begins its life cycle as a low-growing rosette with fuzzy, felt-like leaves. Quite the transformation!
Mullein will grow in any soil as long as it has been disturbed; sunny roadsides, ditches, dry open fields, and even burned or logged areas and gardens. If the ground is dry, this robust weed is happy. Each plant can produce up to 175,000 seeds, which remain dormant for decades or hundreds of years. Only once the soil is disturbed will their yellow flowers bloom.
Mullein is considered invasive in many parts of the world and is nearly impossible to eradicate once established. However, this weed has many benefits to our health, making this invader a very welcome friend.
Great mullein, or common mullein, is also referred to as flannel leaf, candlewick plant, and lungwort. In Roman times, the dried stalks were dipped in wax, pine sap, or suet and used as torches. Historically, the plant’s broad leaves were used as insulation in shoes to keep feet warm. And when added to hot water, the flower extract was used as a hair dye for those looking to go golden blonde.
Little modern scientific research has been done on Verbascum Thapsus , but there is some evidence that suggests it can help rid the body of various flu-causing viruses. Further investigation is needed.
In herb lore, however, there is plenty of information concerning the benefits of mullein. This majestic plant has been naturalized all over the world, and several different cultures have used it to develop medicines and remedies.
Almost 2,000 years ago, the Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist, Dioscorides, recommended mullein for breathing problems. In Ireland, tea was made from the leaves of the plant to cure lung diseases in both humans and livestock. Native Americans also used mullein for several ailments. The infusion of the leaves was given to babies to regulate their bowels. They used the plant to heal wounds and smoked the leaves to treat a fever, cough, or for ceremonial purposes. During the Civil War, mullein was used as an antiseptic. The leaves were soaked in hot vinegar and water to treat wounds, and they were also made into a tea to soothe a soldier’s lungs.
Mullein is a wonderful ally of the respiratory system. A tea made with the leaves will help reduce inflammation and relax respiratory muscles while also soothing the membranes and relieving dry cough and spasms. Moreover, mullein helps expel mucus and phlegm. Both the leaves and flowers contain mucilage, which is soothing to irritated membranes, and saponins, which make coughs more productive.
The plant helps relax the body and has been used to treat muscle cramps, spasms, and joint pain. Because it helps with swelling and irritation, a strong tea applied as a poultice can help with hemorrhoids.
Mullein has also been used to treat ear infections in both children and adults. The flower’s anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anti-bacterial properties work wonders in an oil infusion. Warm mullein flower oil soothes pain and helps patients recover quicker.
Earache Mullein Flower Oil
This remedy is simple to make and is an excellent addition to the medicine cabinet. However, it requires patience. Collecting flowers takes time as they don’t bloom all at once on the mullein stalk. While some flowers will open on a given day, others will remain closed. Here’s how to make it:
- Collect as many mullein flowers as you can every day, and then spread them on a paper towel; let them wilt for about half a day. Place the wilted flowers in a glass jar. Cover them with a good quality olive oil and secure a cheesecloth around the top of the jar with an elastic band. Place on a sunny windowsill.
- Add more wilted flowers and oil daily, making sure the plant material is completely covered. When your flower harvest is finished, stir the herbal oil infusion. Add more oil if needed, and put the jar back on the windowsill for at least two weeks so the oil can extract the beneficial properties from the mullein flowers.
- After two weeks, pour the oil through a coffee filter and transfer to a sterilized glass dropper bottle.
- To use, warm the oil by setting the dropper bottle in a cup of hot water. Test the temperature on your wrist before applying three drops to the ear. Seal the ear with a cotton ball and rest for anywhere between five and 15 minutes before allowing the oil to drain.
- NOTE: if you have a ruptured eardrum, do not use ear oil. Consult a physician!
Some might find the plant’s hairs from the leaves and flowers irritate the skin and mucous membranes. For this reason, it is best to strain the tea or the infused oil through a fine-weave cloth or a coffee filter.
Mullein is considered safe, and the roots, flowers, and leaves can be used. However, the seeds should never be ingested, as they contain rotenone and coumarin, which are potentially harmful and toxic. As with all medicinal herbs, it is essential to research and ask a health professional if mullein is suitable for you. If you forage the plant yourself, be sure you know what you’re looking for, as the first-year mullein rosette can be confused with toxic Digitalis (Fox Glove).
Women who are pregnant or nursing should avoid the use of any herbal product containing mullein. The plant should only be used for up to seven days.