Befriending Plants: Magnificent Mullein

Mullein offerings

I am a connector!  Introducing others to our Creator’s world of plant wonders is my passion. The common Mullein is anything but mundane, it looms as a GIANT in the green world and is one of my favorites.

Each of my Befriending Plants classes begins with a personal question related to the plant we would meet that day. On one occasion the question was, “Who do you know that stands tall in your mind that you look up to and why?” Saving my ‘giant among men’ story till last we enjoyed hearing each other’s hero stories.

My oldest son Brian was a giant to me. He grew to be a tremendous influence, not only on his friends, but on our family as well. His wise and insightful advice caused me to rethink my position on many issues in life and I grew as a person just from interacting with him. But I lost my “giant” and his loving counsel at a young age and I miss him immensely.

Who are the giants in your life?  How did they impact you?

At our weekly Befriending Plants class at the infamous Todd Mercantile, I never know from week to week what plant will be featured. It is always a plant that is ‘in season’ as Nature’s wave rolls by with it’s dizzying pace. This particular week the Lord led me to teach on Great Mullein, Verbascum thapsus.

Why Mullein Became My Plant of Choice

In search of Hawthorn flowers I hiked up my mountain to a near by Hawthorn grove but sadly had missed this short window of Crateagus’ flowery offering. Determined, I looked around to see what else was ‘for sale’ in God’s pharmacy and food stores. The Hawthorn grove is adjacent to a recently clear cut forest that spans for several miles on the East side of our mountain. It had been a green cathedral of towering hardwoods of Poplars, Beech, Birch, Maples, the understory was rich with Ramps, Trilliums, Fern, Wild Ginger, Black and Blue Cohosh, Violets, Bloodroot for starters. An exquisitely  magical place that often drew me to spend time there among these giants – reflecting, observing and resting.

My green cathedral before being clear cut

First year Mullein basal rosettes popping up where the forest had been

Max looking out at the mountain view that the trees used to obscure. Hidden blessings in all devastation.

Because it is heartbreaking to see the twisted remains and sheared trunks I rarely visit this sacred spot. But THIS morning I was astonished to see an acre or more of Verbascum thapsus, Common Mullein’s sage green fuzzy basal rosettes carpeting the earth. I was in awe. It intrigued me to think that in the 18 years I had hiked these woods never once had I seen a Mullein plant and wondered why they would showed up now in the deforested warzone….(stay tuned for the answer to this mystery)

Kacey Brown, a wonderful and wild apprentice helped me gather the first year Mullein leaves! We were ecstatic!

Mullein, clearly would be the spotlighted plant this week’s class.  I thought of all the teas I had brewed, oils and tinctures infused and the fun out of the box experiences with this dear green friend over the years.  It would be a joy to elaborate on it’s many medicinal gifts, it’s stunning beauty, and share some of my adventures.

Who is Mullein?

Mullein is a magnificent plant. It’s towering stature, whimsical flowering stalk, soft grayish green fuzzy leaves are a show stopper. They stand out among the green wallpaper with dignity and grace.

Common Mullein’s botanical name is Verbascum thapsus.  It’s many nicknames reveal some of it’s lore and usefulness: Velvet plant, Hag’s Taper, Roman Torch, Candlewick plant, Adam’s Flannel, Shepherd Club, Quaker’s Rouge

Where are You From?

Originally from Europe and Asia, Mullein species have spread all over North America. The Family is Scophulariaceaea which is the Snapdragon family.

What do You Look Like?

A second year Mullein stalk beginning to shoot up to new heights. Spiderwort flowers look stunning next to the sage green velvety Mullein leaves

Mullein is a biennial plant, meaning it completes it’s life cycle in 2 years. The first year it collects energy and nutrients from the soil to create a beautiful rosette of sage green fuzzy leaves. The second year the energy stored in it’s roots pushes upwards a remarkable flowering stalk that sometimes reaches great heights 8-12 feet. Ascending this tall stalk the fuzzy woolen leaves clasp the stalk becoming more erect like bunny ears as they climb to the top.

What do You Do?

Except for making a tea from the leaves or the flowers, Mullein is most famous for it’s medicinal and practical virtues.  To just skim the surface of it’s medicinal powers: Mullein relaxes  and soothes lungs, calms asthma, magically alleviates dry coughs, strengthens bladder muscles, the root helps alleviate back pain, infused Mullein flower oil relieves earaches, fomentations of the leaves tightens and cools tissues of hemorrhoids..

Spending Time Together – Plant Preparations: tea (flowers), nourishing herbal infusion (leaves), decoction (roots), tincture (all parts), fomentation (leaves), infused oil (flowers), smoke (leaves)

Each flower as it is pollinated closes and develops several hundred tiny peppery seeds within it’s enclosure. As the seed pods harden and dry these seeds feed the birds and insects all throughout the winter. There are millions of seeds per plant.

The whole plant is highly useful and helpful in a variety of ways. All through history Mullein has been appreciated and used for a variety of it’s healing properties to practical uses as in: torch lights, insulation, fishing tricks, insect repellant, candlewicks and even warding off evil spirits!

 

Mullein seed stalks filled with millions of peppery seeds.

Mullein Leaves

Mullein leaves are oval shaped and can grow in size from 6-15 inches in the first year plant, in the second year a stalk grows up from the center of the rosette to great heights.  The leaves along the stem are alternate, growing smaller as they ascend the stalk, they clasp the stem in such a way as to channel rain water to the roots.

The Doctrine of Signatures is a belief that the Creator has knit hints into the fiber and structure of each plant as to it’s usefulness. A walnut, for example, looks like a brain and it is in fact a nutritious key food for brain health.   It is a useful game to utilize our sensory perception to make thoughtful guesses as to the hidden treasures and gifts of each plant. For a supernatural view of each plant use a jeweler’s loupe to zoom in close to observe what few get to witness and become intimate with the leaves, the flowers, the seed pods, the tiny unique seeds of life…and also stand back to just observe the plant as a whole.  These observations can become ‘bones for a poem’ or a story you write about each green friend, this type of inspection inspires plant drawings as well.

Observing closely the thickly woven hairy leaves, the hairs remind us of the cilia in our lungs giving a solid hint to Mullein’s renown ability to address respiratory health. In particular, it is extremely effective to soothe a dry hacking cough. A tea made from the carefully dried leaves is excellent for respiratory support. Mullein tea was significant in keeping my parents sleeping in the same room because it wondrously took away my mother’s incessant dry hacking cough that had annoyed her and my father for years! It has a delicate taste and is a powerful soothing tea.  Mullein is not known for being an edible plant except for this medicinal and pleasant tasty tea that is high in calcium and magnesium.  I like to have at least a gallon of Mullein leaves dried for Winter use and have shared it with many friends who have had respiratory challenges over the years.

Herbalist, Ryan Drum talks about the resin that Mullein exudes when a leaf is torn from the stalk having a vanilla scent and his experimentation with making a vanilla like extract from this phenomenon. That is definitely on my Mullein bucket list for herbing around!  Mullein infusion or tea made from the leaves has a faint vanilla flavor to it as well.

Other historical and practical uses for Mullein leaves…Mullein’s nickname, Quaker’s Rouge, is so named for it’s prickly leaves used as a rubefacient irritating the cheeks of women to provide a ‘natural’ healthy blush.

“Candlewick plant”  refers to the old practice of using the dried down of mullein leaves and stems to make lamp wicks. I have never tried this but it is on my bucket list as well.

Some foragers call Mullein ‘nature’s toilet paper’ but I am certain they never tried this for it is anything but comfortable or soothing with the irritating hairs of the leaves.  However, colonists and American Indians did use Mullein leaves to line their shoes and absorb moisture. I’ve even heard of the larger elliptical leaves being used for diapers.  There is a demulcent (soothing) effect in Mullein leaves but those hairs are irritating.  Not sure how to use these healing leaves in this way but most likely poultices and fomentations are the way to go.  The leaves can be frozen whole to use for these purposes.

My favorite way to store the leaves is by drying them in small bundles till crisp and then storing in mason jars.

Mullein Flowers

When harvesting the flowers you have to beat the bees to them before they take the pollen! Thanks Eileen Woodmansee for sharing this incredible photo with us! Pure magic!

Infuse the mullein flowers in olive oil for a powerful remedy for ear aches. Whether the infection is viral or bacterial, it works!

At the top of the Mullein spike is a raceme of yellow flowers about ¾” across and consists of five petals, five hairy green sepals, five stamens, and a pistil.  Mullein flower spike blooms during the Summer for about six weeks.  Only a few flowers are in bloom at a time.  Picking the inflorescent yellow flowers before they are pollinated is a memorable way to spend time with this majestic plant. Their anodyne (pain relieving) quality has been proved by scientific studies to be one of the most effective ear ache remedies.  Mullein flower infused oil is soothing for ears  and infusing these flower in honey makes for a soothing concoction for sore throats. Antiseptic in constituents these tiny flowers have powerful healing properties.  The flowers can be eaten in a salad or for decorating a cake and have been used for centuries to dye hair or fabrics yellow.

Look at this beauty! The root at this point is not viable for medicine, all the energy in the plant is being spent on flowers blooming, seed capsules forming and the goal of all plants…..reproduction with the seeds of life. Use first year Mullein roots for medicine.

Mullein Roots

Regarding the Doctrine of Signatures, it is no surprise that Mullein offers incredible healing powers for the muscular skeletal system because it’s second year towering tensile stalks are strong, straight and flexible. The wind can whip at crazying speeds and Verbascum thapsus just bends with it’s power and then straightens with ease.  It is Mullein’s tap root that is specific for addressing spinal alignment issues. I make a tincture out of the whole plant for this purpose including well macerated roots. Or you can decoct the root as a strong tea to ease back pain.  Herbalist Jim Macdonald shares an awesome personal story of how decocting the roots helped the painful dislocated disc in his spine to realign itself so he could continue his canoe trip. Check out his blog posted below to read more of Jim’s respect and experience with Mullein.

Another unusual use for Mullein root is it’s usefulness in strengthening the bladder muscles. Harvest the first year root in the Autumn and dry it, after drying grind it into a fine powder in a coffee grinder and fill #00 capsules with the powder.  Take two with each meal for six weeks.  This is also excellent for children with weak bladders who wet the bed or for seniors who are losing bladder control.

Mullein Seeds

The tiny peppery seeds have a narcotic relaxing effect, supposedly fisherman have better luck fishing by pouring a tea made from the seeds in their favorite fishing hole. This propurtedly inebriates the fish and makes them easier to catch.

Due to the rotenone in the seeds they can act as an insect repellant as well.  Many surmise that the Mullein stalks dipped in tallow and lit for torches also repelled pesky insects in the process of lighting a path.

You can always locate first year plants around the base of a retired Mullein seed skeleton!

Playful ideas: The seed stalks also make for beautiful dried flower arrangements as do the dried leaves. I posted a few pictures of crafting with Mullein below.  Some of my herbal apprentices have thrown long straight Mullein stalk as an herbal javelin!! And a magical thing to do with Mullein seed stalks on a snowy Winter day is to cut the stalk at the base and whirl around spreading the tiny black seeds like pepper in a circle on the white snow.

Reflecting on Giant Stories – Devotional on Mullein

My “giant” Brian was a young man who lived life to the full, sometimes in daring adventures. One day we received a call that he had been in an accident flying a wing suit in the mountains of Switzerland. My husband went to the Swiss hospital to be by his side while we wondered if he would come out of the coma and recover. On April 2, 2014, he left this earth to spend eternity with the God who cared for him, guided him, and captured his imagination and his heart. We look forward to joining him someday. You can read more about him here: https://www.jasondrake.com/brian-drake.

Some people are bigger than life.

Brian changed my life in more ways than I can count. Brian was a seeker of truth and taught others by the Socratic method of asking genuine questions, listening well and helping the rest of us to think along with him. So many of my rusty paradigms were shifted from time spent with Brian, reading the books he suggested, facing hard questions posed in a respectful way. Everything from natural healing, history, economics to Jesus Christ was rethought and brought into clearer focus because of his influence. Other’s felt similarly about him as well but I did not know the reach of Brian’s presence in the lives of others until after he was gone and the stories came pouring in.

As a professional BASE jumper, Brian lived in the French Alps for easy access to altitude.

The Mystery of the Seeds

In the weeks following his accident in the Swiss Alps I looked for comfort from my Creator, from His Word and His creation. One of the promises I held most dear is in Psalms “All of the children of My servants will continue and their seed will be established before Me.”   As we spread Brian’s ashes in a skydive over a drop zone in San Diego, God impressed on my raw heart that none of his ashes would fall to the desert floor in vain. Seeds of Love had been planted.

But the seeds are what captivated my attention because as I was geeking out researching more about Mullein on Google I read that they can sit dormant on the earth’s skin for up to 100 years. What brings them to life is devastation. Whether that be a fire or a clear cut, as in my story, they wait till they are needed to burst forth and bring healing to the denuded forest floor or the burned ground.

Jim MacDonald says, “The best way I know to get Mullein to grow where you live is to burn a brush pile and come back in a year!”

Mullein blankets the land where fire has cleared forests. In this, it appears as though the plant is invading the land, but after a year or two, new plant species emerge and diversity expands. Mullein acts as a kind of soothing balm that eases and covers with its leaves the devastation and disruption and helps regenerate new growth. ‘Mullein is also known to regenerate new growth in human lungs’ helping us breathe.

This reference to dormant seeds waiting for fire or devastation to sprout and bring forth healing was extremely meaningful for me and the timing of this teaching was incredible.

We all go through fires of adversity, life is hard, waiting is hard but knowing that we are not alone and that Life is coming and healing will be brought about in time…is an anchor for the weary soul.   Thought none of us would choose it – fires and pain can bring forth much good in it’s refining process.

3-2-1 Thank You

This teaching on Mullein corresponded in my life to the birthday of our eldest son Brian who died in 2014  in a BASE jumping accident in the Swiss Alps.

But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, and He who formed you,

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine!

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

And through the rivers, they will not overflow you.

When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you.  

For I am the Lord your God, your Savior.” Isaiah 43: 1-3

Plant Poems

At the end of each Befriending Plants class I saved 10 minutes for my students to write a poem about their new green friend.  Here is one of the Verbascum thapsis (the common but not so common Mullein) that my friend Alaina wrote as a gift for me.

Verbascum thapsis

                                    – for Holly

                                             (Isaiah 43:1-4)

in the wasteland we sit

  seemingly barren, though not forgotten

tiny seeds of life

scattered across the snow

years of silent stillness

waiting in darkness

suddenly Light –

a spark of possibility

fierce fires of incubation

through devastation flourishing

Adam’s flannel rosette

promising strength, soothing

reaching towards the heaven

its own sunny beacon

bending but unbreaking

offering hope for our battered souls.

 

So now it’s your turn. You have just been introduced to someone who could change the quality of your life!  It’s time for you to develop your own adventures with this generous green friend, or perhaps you have known Mullein for a long time….either way I want to hear from you and enjoy more about Mullein through your stories.  Please comment below!  Wild Blessings abound!

Love,

Holly

For continued study – suggested references

http://ryandrum.com/threeherbs1.htm#mullein

https://herbmentor.learningherbs.com/herb/mullein/#mullein-flowers

https://www.herbcraft.org/mullein.html

 

Dried Mullein basal rosette of velvety sage leaves are beautiful for decoration

Holly’s Mullein Action List – a summary of the many things you can do to spend time getting to know Mullein better

My friend Martha created this beautiful Seedscape and used a dried dark brown Mullein stalk for the earth below.

Dried Mullein leaves in the Thanksgiving table centerpiece. So beautiful!

Now that you know what a powerful green ally Mullein is for your respiratory system, immune boosting, spinal alignment, kidney strengthening…I hope you take the time to harvest your own stash and add Verbascum’s many offerings to your healing arsenal. Wild Blessings abound!

Wow, I just found Laura Weant’s poem on Mullein, I had to share it with you!  So good!

Mullein –  Laura Weant

slow and steady

born in fire, you don’t burn out quickly

you take your sweet, soft time

from rosette to towering stalk

you bring us light; you help us breathe

you take away our pain.

you lubricate; boost our immune system

mullein, verbascum thapsis –

make us flexible as you

make us patient, a self-starter,

and when our fire comes, make us a light-bringer, too