Common mullein and its relative Moth mullein grow throughout the United States, but it's the leaves of Common mullein (or Verbascum thapsis) that achieved popularity for medicinal use. A look at its history and identity may promote appreciation of the woolly plant you find in the wild and in your garden.
Common mullein leaves historically served as lamp wicks and shoe liners, as well as medicine for various ailments. The Romans burned them as torches after dipping them in fat, according to Ohio State University, and Quaker women rubbed their cheeks with the leaves for blush. Moth mullein, on the other hand, was a cockroach repellant. Mullein spread throughout North America in the 1800s after early settlers introduced both varieties from Eurasia.
The Puritans transported mullein as a medicinal herb, according to the Virginia Tech Weed Identification Guide, and some of its traditional uses extend into modern times. Jim Meuninck, author of "Medicinal Herbs of North America," notes that mullein leaves serve as an expectorant for respiratory ailments, though people traditionally smoked them in addition to steeping them for tea. Additional uses include a leaf poultice for wounds and rashes, and people use the flower for hemorrhoids, spider bites and ear infections.
Locate mullein nationwide in fields and disturbed grounds. Common mullein begins as a basal rosette and forms a whorl of 6- to 18-inch-long leaves. A single, flowering stalk appears in the second year of growth and reaches up to six feet in height, according to the Virginia Tech Weed Identification Guide. Its woolly, densely haired leaves differ from the 8-inch-long, sparsely haired leaves of Moth mullein. Both mulleins grow five-lobed flowers, which are one-inch in diameter. Common mullein flowers are yellow, while Moth mullein flowers contain a mixture of purple and yellow or white.
Treatment of mullein plants depends on your personal preferences, as some welcome it while others consider it a weed. Meuninck recommends digging up first-year growth and transplanting it to the garden for a "striking" biennial bloom. If you wish to remove mullein, pull it by hand when it's a first-year rosette and spray difficult or second-year growth with a two-percent glyphosate solution mixed with a non-ionic surfactant, as recommended by Colorado State University.
Common mullein leaves can cause contact dermatitis, which is how women traditionally achieved rosy cheeks with them, and Ohio State University notes that seeds and foliage may induce sleep when eaten, as they contain a narcotic No known toxicity exists for Moth mullein, but do not consume any type of mullein without the guidance of a holistic health-care practitioner. Follow label instructions on any herbicides you use on mullein and avoid spraying desirable plants with the herbicide.