A Plant at a Time: Mullein

It stands at the crossroads. Tall stalk, large fuzzy leaves. Yellow flowers cover the head of the stalk, like kernels on a corncob. As if it were a torch to light the way.

Some of its names seize on its resemblance to a torch, and its long history of use as one. Hekate’s torch. Konigskerze (German for king’s candle). Hedge taper. Hag’s taper. Candlewick plant. Mary’s candle. Witch’s candle.

photo by the author   Mullein (Verbascum thapsis)  Pictured in bloom. Mullein takes two years to reach this stage.  Unlike the wild mullein described in this post, I planted this one behind my house. It has since died and left so many of its babies that I’ve had to weed many out. There is a new one starting to bloom on its place.

photo by the author

Mullein (Verbascum thapsis)

Pictured in bloom. Mullein takes two years to reach this stage.

Unlike the wild mullein described in this post, I planted this one behind my house. It has since died and left so many of its babies that I’ve had to weed many out. There is a new one starting to bloom on its place.

Other names for it address the fuzzy leaves. Beggar’s blanket. Blanket leaf. Blanket plant. Our lady’s flannel. Old man’s flannel. Cowboy toilet paper (the leaves do, in fact, make a good toilet paper. No need to pack it in if you’re backpacking where this plant grows. I speak from experience.) Mullein, its “official” common name, sounds awfully dull by comparison.

This is a plant that especially loves poor soil and disturbed areas, and easily tolerates drought. In ancient times, crossroads, which were made of dirt but not paved, were the kind of disturbed area where mullein readily grew. In modern times, it is found near logging roads and hiking trails and cropping up as a volunteer in backyards. It also has quite a history of use in magic. Powdered mullein may substitute for graveyard dirt in spells that call for it. In some sources on the Odyssey, the plant that Odysseus used to protect himself from Circe’s magic, and avoid being turned into a pig, was mullein.

The tall stalk takes at least two years to grow. For a year or longer, the leaves just grow in a rosette, getting bigger and bigger, pushing all other plants out of the way. This is not the social, respectful yarrow. This plant is more like Hecate, bearer of its torch, who demands space and respect for herself. At the end of its lifecycle, the stalk dries up, scattering its tiny seeds prolifically. 

If you want to make a real torch out of it, this is the time when you can. Simply harvest the stalk and use it as if it were a wick and you were making a candle, dipping it in melted wax and letting it cool. If you do not have time to do that, you can simply light it and carry it as a torch, although it will burn much faster that way. Centuries of peasants have done the same. Before cotton became widely available and affordable, mullein was, in fact, the most commonly used material for lamp wicks.

If it is not harvested, the dead stalk makes a great perch for birds. They will get ample use of it until it eventually crumbles. By that time, generations of its children will have also gone through their lifecycles. The birds will not be deprived.

But mullein’s use is far from being limited to torches and toilet paper and magic spells and perches for birds. It has at least as long a history of medicinal uses. Dioscorides (c. 40-90 CE) wrote about them, which is a sure indication that it was already ancient medicine by his time.

Mullein leaves have a strong affinity for the lungs. Taken as tincture or tea, they are especially helpful for chronic lung infections and dry, hacking coughs. Because they help dilate the bronchials, they can also be used to help treat asthma. They are helpful, as well, for harm reduction in smokers and people who are being exposed to significant air pollution and particulate matter: construction workers, firefighters, or people living near a wildfire. 

Mullein flowers are fairly well known even outside of herbalism circles as a treatment for ear infections. A mullein and garlic oil is often used for this purpose. The same mullein flower garlic oil is used for ear obstructions in general: excessive earwax causing deafness, ear mites in animals, ear abscesses, and Meniere’s disease. Taken internally, as tea, they have a sedative and relaxant effect, which is very strong for some people. Tincture of mullein flowers can be used to relieve swelling. A poultice of crushed mullein flowers can be used to remove warts.

Mullein root drains dampness in the kidney and bladder. It strengthens and tones the bladder, enhances bladder function. The roots are a diuretic, but the kind that increases urine volume while lessening the frequency of urination. They make a good treatment for urinary incontinence, interstitial cystitis, and benign prostate hypertrophy. They can also be part of a formula for chronic bladder infections.

Finally, the entire plant is a lymphatic (supports the lymph system). The leaves make a good poultice for swollen glands and other swellings. Taking mullein root or mullein flower tincture internally, while also using a mullein leaf poultice, increases the lymphatic effect.

A highly safe herb, mullein has no known contraindications. The only caveat is, if making it into tea, be sure to filter it carefully. If there are any stray leaves in the tea, their hairs will be irritating to the throat.

In spirit dose,*  like in its physical properties, mullein reaches deep into the lungs. Lungs store grief. So, mullein is a good plant to use for grief support. Meanwhile, its flower essence is associated with helping you stand up for yourself. Like Hecate at the crossroads, who bows to no one, the essence of mullein empowers you to stand tall and regal.


*Spirit dose is a small amount of herbal tincture or tea, taken when the emotional effects of a plant are desired but its physical effects not needed. See “Physical and Spiritual” in the Medicine of Plants post.