Five Surprising Uses for Mullein

Mullein on the Springwater Corridor

Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, is that common sidewalk weed you’ve no doubt seen around in disturbed places like vacant lots and overgrown yards. It grows in direct sunlight — or perhaps I should say, this being a Portland winter, direct cloudlight. The leaves are pale green and adorably fuzzy. Its first-year shape is a rosette, and then in its second year it sends up a tall flowering stalk with yellow blossoms. And by tall I mean really tall — eight feet tall! (See photo below).

I was just over 100 pages into Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, when I was surprised to find the characters using mullein for fishing. They put mullein in the water to stun the fish and send them floating to the surface, making it easy to net their catch en masse.

This works in real life. The seeds and flowers of mullein contain compounds called saponins. Saponins are soap-like and are highly toxic to insects and cold-blooded aquatic creatures. (They are harmless to people when cooked). If you find yourself in a survival situation and need to eat? Mullein saves the day.

You may have seen mullein in a health food store as an herbal tea for respiratory irritation. It is antimicrobial and antispasmodic for coughs.

Or you may have seen mullein flower oil sold as a remedy for ear infections. Here’s a great how to video on identifying mullein and making the flower oil yourself. The season for flower harvesting is summer, but you can pick the leaves and dry them for tea any time. I prefer the leaves from the first-year plants.

Here are two lesser-known uses for mullein:

* As a primitive candle: Drip the flower stalk in something flammable — such as wax or fat from a roadkill animal — and use it as a torch. I have seen this done, and it is awesome.

* As a smoking herb: Mullein is a respiratory medicine and so smoking the dried leaves is one way to bring that medicine directly into the lungs. You could also more recreationally use it as a soft, cooling, airy base for herbal smoking mixtures. It is very mildly sedating. I like to combine it with lemon balm and Russian sage, as I have written about before, but it’s great in many combinations.

Click here to learn more about historical Native American uses for mullein.

Second-year mullein

Warning: Be careful not to confuse mullein with the toxic plant known as foxglove, Digitalis sp., which has a similar structure (a basal rosette and a stalk) and also has a slightly fuzzy texture, though less fuzzy than mullein. Please have a look at foxglove here and you will see that foxglove has darker leaves and a different leaf surface. In flower confusion will not be an issue because foxglove flowers are shaped like little trumpets, which will make it more distinctive.

Also please be careful not to confuse mullein with the plant called lamb’s ear, Stachys byzantina. Lamb’s ear has a more similar color to mullein than foxglove but has a much silkier texture. Mullein is fuzzy, not silky. See a pic of lamb’s ear here.

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33 thoughts on “Five Surprising Uses for Mullein

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  3. I roll my own Native American tobacco by hand & at the end of each cig I place a mullein filter, to reduce tobacco consumption & to filter out the bad elements of smoking. It works wonderfully.

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  7. I also use the root for a tincture to help with arthritis. Preferably the root from the first year, but have also had very good luck with the root of the 2nd year. Many fire uses as well. Of course the ear drops, and teas.

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  9. Wish I knowed that a couple weeks ago when I was yankin up a bunch of mullein for tincture and hand drills. I was right by a waterway and coulda tried it. I wonder, do it work as a surface poison or do they eat it? And, is it toxic enough to kill the fish it get’s to in the water all willy-nilly or do they recover from it?

    • I have my doubts as to whether this really works. I’d have to see well-documented records to be convinced.

      Native people use horse chestnuts and buckeyes to poison fish. However, it’s very destructive to throw poisons in our waterways. We’re already giving things that live in the water a hard time, and corporations do enough of that already.

      Such activities should be relegated to real survival situations.

      • I found some information on saponins in my 1973 Encyclopedia Britannica. To answer my own questions; the fish do not eat it, but it stops the breathing mechanism in the gills. The toxin does kill the fish and because of this laws have been passed to prevent extermination of fish. In this resource it is stated that it is estimated that 300-400 species of plants have been used by aboriginal people for this use.

        My plan is to go fishing and get 3 or 5 small fish. I’ll keep the fish in a 5 gallon bucket and change the water regularly. When I have my last fish and the last change of water I’ll try to shake some seeds in the bucket. By some I mean a whole mess of seeds all up in the bucket, I plan to stick the seed heads and all in there. I’ll record all this and we shall see.

        I also forgot to mention that at a bushcraft meet up in PA this year a fella there was able to get the mullein pulp to take a spark from flint and steel. I’ve used a ferro rod and had success also. It takes a spark well and transfers to tinder easily. It’s also a great coal extender, like the suggested candle. I found a nice thick stalk and made a cylindrical holding container for tinder and striker steel.

      • I think maybe I should start in small doses. I was thinking that a high dose of ANY plant may throw the balance off enough to kill the fish and I wouldn’t know the cause. I’ll keep yall posted when I get around to doing it.

  10. mullein is the first plant that was shown to me strickly as a medicinal herb. For coughs, and other lung conditions . But i drank plantain tea for a chest cold as a boy. Not mullein . I used to keep the leaves in my pocket to rub really soft .

    • My understanding is that a mix of the seeds and flowers, when put in the water, is a short-acting poison that makes the fish float to the surface.

      • I too was fascinated to read about this phenomenon in “Love in the Time of Cholera” actually very recently. I will keep you apprised of my fishing exploits ongoing although most of these involve spinning and fly rods, hooks, bait, and flies. Inadvertently hooked an otter in the mangroves yesterday which made for a tricky and dangerous disengagement of the poor little fella. Do you know if mullein is indigenous here in FL. as it is in my native Maine? Jonny

  11. One good use though is that I’ve been tobacco free for 2 months. For a short time, I smoked a mix of Mullein, Mugwort and California Sage Brush – VERY sparingly (once a day) and this helped me going through the cravings and the need to smoke.

    I think Mullein also helped my sinus inflammation.

    At this point I don’t smoke at all. So Steve Brill is right but sparingly, it can also help.

  12. I’d only smoke mullein, or any herb, in emergency situations. You’re breathing ashes into your lungs, and filling your circulatory system with carbon monoxide. The only good thing about it, if you’re not using it as an emergency expectorant, is that it’s not as bad as tobacco.

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