Mullein: plant medicine, scintillating flower & unexpected bushcraft companion

Wayne Weiseman
Tuesday, 27th January 2015

Wayne Weiseman extols the virtues of mullein: Herbal medicine, stupefier of fish, bushcrafter's fire maker, even nature's ultra soft toilet paper.

It is difficult to drive down America’s highways without seeing tall stalks of mullein on almost every embankment. At times I have gotten so mesmerized with this plant that not even the person behind me blowing their horn and screaming loudly can get me to move any faster. The yellow blossoms at the top of the spike are the main attraction. When they begin to bloom in late spring I am a goner. I could not begin to count all the times I’ve pulled over to the shoulder of the road to sit next to the mullein plant. The velvet leaf rosettes climb the stalk until a burst of scintillating yellow grabs your attention, rivets you there. And when you finally come to, and take a look down at the embankment, and there’s a state trooper, light’s flashing, checking out your car (and you), you quickly pull a leaf from the mullein, rumble down to the highway, and present your treasure to the trooper (with a big, toothful smile, of course). After all, why do you think state troopers are constantly pulling people over? It is not to give tickets. No. It is simply to get a closer view of the mullein. Right? 

Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus), also called velvetleaf, flannel leaf, Aaron’s rod, Jacob’s staff, and a variety of very descriptive titles, was originally brought here form Europe, becoming well established by the 1700s. Mullein is biennial, producing a rosette of wooly leaves the first year, a tall stalk (up to six feet), topped by clusters of five-petal, sessile yellow flowers, the second. The leaves spiral up the stalk. 150,000 seeds are produced each second year and some of them can lie dormant for as many as one hundred years or reproduce immediately. Many bugs and beetles lay eggs and feed on mullein, especially within the middle of the first year leaf rosettes, and in the flowers. The yellow flowers bloom from June through September, and the stalks stand tall through the winter. The low-lying rosettes stay green through cold weather and snow.

Of all herbs used to treat respiratory infections and congestion, mullein is one of the foremost. It tones the mucous membranes and facilitates expectoration. Its demulcent qualities soothe soar throat and inflammation. Bronchitis, catarrh, hoarseness are all treated with mullein. This can be done with an infusion of the leaves or the dried leaves can be smoked. The leaves are a mild sedative, and they will help cleanse an overburdened digestive tract. A tea of the more astringent root helps stop diarrhea and bleeding, and is used as a wash for eye soreness. The leaves are also poulticed on sores, cuts, and skin inflammations. The whole leaf is wrapped around a sprain to ease pain and bring good circulation to the injured site.

A tea is made from the seeds of mullein is poured into a pond to stupify fish, for easy harvest.

The stalk is the preferred drill for making friction fire by hand. The brown stalk is taken, stripped of old dry leaves, shaved with a knife-edge and rounded off. This stalk is twirled between the hands on a notched fireboard, creating heat and a powdered residue that will soon, when hot enough, produce a coal to be dropped into a tinder nest for ignition. 

I have made some fairly straight flying arrows from mullein stalks, but to get the right size, straightness, and proper weight is very difficult.

We used to laugh standing near mullein plants, thinking about the leaves as 'survival' toilet paper or 'primitive' halter-tops. And yet, this strong and powerful plant keeps us in awe. The mullein, naked on a hillside, withstands scorching summer sun and sub-zero winter winds. The beautiful, velvet, leaves must act as insulation against the cold. Yet, another possible use of mullein for us also.

Wayne Weiseman is an experienced permaculture teacher, designer, consultant and the co-author of Integrated Forest Gardening. You can read a review of his book HERE and purchase it in Europe saving £3.30 on the cover price HERE. For North American sales please visit his publishers at Chelsea Green.