The large, velvety leaves of the mullein plant make a soothing herbal tea. As an ingredient in salves and poultices, they have the same soothing effect on the skin.
Verbascum thapsus L.
Botanical Family: Scrophulariaceae
Common name: Mullein
Synonyms: Common mullein, great mullein, velvet plant, velvet dock, blanket leaf, torch plant
The Plant: Mullein is a very striking plant, with its large, densely furred leaves and tall, stately, flowering stalk.
While it's a native to Europe and Asia, mullein has become naturalized across North America and Australia, where it inhabits dry, rocky, or steep areas, wastelands, and field edges.
Mullein is usually a biennial, which means that it seeds in the second year and then dies. (Herbs like burdock, clary sage and mullein that are usually biennial sometimes act as annuals or short-lived perennials.) First-year mullein plants are rosettes of oval-shaped, woolly, grey-green leaves. In the second year, the leaves at the base of the plant (basal leaves) grow large and elongated, with successively smaller leaves developing on the lower part of a one- to five-foot flowering stalk. Sometimes plants send up more than one stalk, or the main stalk has several side stalks, generally as a result of damage to the original stalk. The fragrant yellow flowers and buds are densely packed around the stalk.
Mullein leaves are best harvest in the first year or the spring of the second year before the flowering stalk shoots up in the summer. As the energy and virtues of the mullein leaves move up the stem and into the flowers, the large lower leaves start to turn yellow and lose their effectiveness.
Mullein flowers are a well-known ingredient in herbal ear oils.
The flowers are harvested as they open, and because they open slowly over a period of time, harvesting may continue over several weeks. Another species, V. olympicum, is often cultivated by those wishing to harvest flowers, as the flowers of this species are larger than those of V. Thapsus and easier to pluck from the flower stalk.
Constituents of Note: Saponins, small amount of essential oil, flavonoids, glycosides (acubin), mucilage
Quality: Finding good quality mullein leaves can be difficult for two reasons: Care must be taken in drying them because of their thick, woolly nature, and the leaves must be harvested before they become old or spent.
Good quality mullein leaf should be light green. Brown, black or yellow leaves should only be present in quantities of less than 5% of the herb.
Mullein leaves have a slightly bitter flavor and mucilaginous mouth feel with an indistinct aroma.
Regulatory Status: GRAS (Title 21 182.10 and 182.20) as a spice, natural flavoring and seasoning, and Dietary Supplement
Did you know? The many local or regional names used for herbs can be a clue to how they were used or to their appearance. Mullein is a great example of this -- with common names such as blanket leaf, velvet plant, and velvet dock all referring to the large, soft, fuzzy mullein leaf.
Torch plant, another common name, refers to the use of the plant in Medieval times, when the stalks were dipped in fat and lit for use as torches in processions. Another interesting common name is Quaker rouge. In the 1800s, some young Quaker girls would rub fresh mullein leaves on their cheeks. The hair on the leaves would cause a slight irritation and reddening of the skin.
Origins of botanical names often tell a story about the herb, too. For instance, the name mullein may have been derived from the Latin word for 'malady', malamdrium or from mollis, the Latin word for "soft."
Directions: To make a tea, pour one cup of boiling water over one teaspoon of mullein leaf and let stand for three to five minutes.
Suggested Uses: Mullein leaves make a tea that's gently soothing to both the skin and mucosa. Besides its soothing and calming properties, it's also cooling when there's a feeling of hot, dry tightness in the throat or chest.
Another age-old use of mullein leaf is as an ingredient in herbal smoking mixtures.
Mullein leaves are also an ingredient in salves, syrups and poultices.
Caution/Safety: The Botanical Safety Handbook* classifies mullein as:
Class:1 herbs which can be safely consumed when used appropriately Class:2b Herbs not to be used during pregnancy.
The tiny hairs on the fresh leaves can be a skin irritant for some people.
*Michael McGuffin, ed., American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook, (New York: CRC Press, 1997)