Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) carries a reputation that veers between healing herb and towering weed. Some consider it indispensable for lightening blond hair and easing coughs. Others bemoan the plant's invasive tendencies. Never in dispute, however, is mullein's long hold on public imagination. Legends place the staff-like plant in the hands of everyone from Adam to Odysseus to malevolent witches.
A truly striking herb, torch-shaped mullein grows up to 8 feet tall and sports vivid yellow blossoms along its 1-foot flowering shaft. Mullein appears each spring as a low mound of velvety leaves, something like a lamb's ears plant. But before long the true giant emerges, with the leaves getting smaller the higher up the plant they go. This pyramid arrangement helps the plant survive drought conditions, because the smaller leaves drop rain onto the larger ones below, which in turn direct moisture to the root system.
Mulleins prefer sunny locations with dry, alkaline soil. It does not flower well in soils with excess nitrogen. Place mullein in the back of an herb or flower garden, and stake it if the garden's site exposes it to high winds. The plant self-seeds freely. Given their size, mulleins aren't suitable to growing in containers or window boxes. Their appearance as prolific wildflowers throughout much of North America and Europe--some consider them a weed--indicates how easily mulleins are to grow.
Collect flowers once they begin to open in midsummer. For potpourris and tea blends, strip the flowers of their stem ends and set in a dark, draft-free place to dry. If infusing fresh flowers to treat coughs or for cosmetic purposes, steep in just-boiled water soon after harvesting.
Mulleins attract bees and butterflies, making them ideal ornamentals as well as pollination aids to other crops. In centuries past, the stalks were dipped in tallow or suet and used as candles or torches. According to herbalist Lesley Bremness, Romans wrapped figs in the larger leaves to preserve them. The flowers can be used to flavor liqueurs or honey, and both the flowers and flowering tips of the plant add color and fragrance to potpourris.
Cosmetic and Medicinal Traditions
Cosmetically, mullein enjoys a reputation for lightening fair hair that rivals chamomile's. Amateur herbalists can pour a pint of boiling water over a handful of fresh mullein flowers, cool and strain the mixture, and use the infused liquid as an herbal hair rinse.
The University of Maryland confirms mullein's usefulness as a cough expectorant and recommends 3 grams of mullein in supplement form. The University notes, however, that mullein still needs more study for its usefulness in treating bronchitis, specifically. Traditionally, the flowers are steeped in hot water and sipped as herbal tea to treat chest congestion and coughing.
Legends and Aliases
Over the centuries, people around the world have known mullein by many colorful names. Its many uses and traditions have led mullein to be called hag's taper, rag paper, cow lungwort, candlewick plant, Aaron's rod, Adam's staff, Peter's staff, fluffweed, old lady's flannel, hare's beard, wild ice leaf and velvet dock.
In the 1930s herbalist Maude Grieve wrote about mullein's mystical reputation in her classic "A Modern Herbal," now available online. "Both in Europe and Asia the power of driving away evil spirits was ascribed to the Mullein," Grieve noted. "In India it has the reputation among the natives that the St. John's Wort once had here, being considered a sure safeguard against evil spirits and magic, and from the ancient classics we learn that it was this plant which Ulysses took to protect himself against the wiles of Circe."