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.
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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