Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Verbascum thapsus - Great Mullein

Verbascum thapsus - Common or Great Mullein, also called White Mullein, Torches, Mullein Dock, Our Lady's Candle/Flannel, Velvet Dock, Blanket Herb, Velvet Plant, Woollen, Rag Paper, Candlewick Plant, Wild Ice Leaf, Bullock's /Clown's Lungwort, Aaron's Rod, Jupiter's/Jacob's/Peter's/Shepherd's Staff, Shepherd's Clubs, Beggar's Stalk, Golden Rod, Adam's Flannel, Beggar's Blanket, Clot, Cuddy's Lungs, Duffle, Feltwort, Fluffweed, Hare's Beard, Old Man's Flannel, Hag's Taper.

Enough names for you?  In the 19th century Great Mullein had well over 40 different common names in English alone.  In the midwestern United States, including Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, Mullein is commonly known as Cowboy Toilet Paper.  The Latin name Verbascum is considered to be a corruption of barbascum, from the Latin barba (a beard), in allusion to the shaggy foliage.

Great Mullein is native to Europe, northern Africa and Asia, and introduced in the Americas and Australia.  It is a hairy biennial plant that can grow to 4 or even 5 feet high, and in gardens has been known to attain a height of 7 or 8 feet or more tall.  The leaves near the base of the stem are large and numerous, 6 to 8" long and 2 to 2 1/2" broad, but become smaller as they ascend the stem, on which they are arranged not opposite to one another, but on alternate sides.

The woolly rosette of leaves merge into a thick (nearly an inch across), densely crowded spike, usually a foot long, the small sulphur-yellow flowers opening here and there on the spike.  All kinds of insects are attracted by this plant, the Honey Bee, Humble Bee, some of the smaller wild bees and different species of flies, since the nectar and the staminal hairs are both so readily accessible.

The thick covering of hairs on the leaves act as a protective coat, preventing moisture loss, and are also a defensive weapon, not only preventing attacks from insects, but acting as an irritation in the mucous membrane of any grazing animals that may attempt to browse upon them.  The hairs are not confined to the leaves, but on every part of the plant, so that the plant has a whitish or grey tone.

Verbascum thapsus grows in a wide variety of habitats, but prefers well-lit and disturbed soils.  As a common weedy type plant, it produces lots of seeds, but rarely becomes invasive, as its seeds need open ground to germinate.

It is a very minor problem for most agricultural crops, since it is not an agggressive species. It is intolerant of shade from other plants and unable to survive tilling.  It also hosts many insects, acting as a "trap" and keeping harmful ones away from other plants. 

Like many ancient medicinal plants, Great Mullein was linked to witches, although the relationship remained ambiguous. The plant was also widely believed to ward off evil curses.

When dry, the down from the leaf and stem makes excellent tinder, and was actuallly used for lamp wicks, hence the name 'Candlewick Plant.'  The stalks were also often dipped in suet to burn at funerals. 

One superstition was that witches used lamps and candles made with Mullein wicks for their incantations.  One name of the plant, 'Hag's Taper', refers to this. Albeit, the word 'hag' is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word Haege or Hage (a hedge) - and the plant is also called  'Hedge Taper,' suggesting that the plant's tall spikes, studded with yellow blossoms, looked like a tall candle growing in the hedge.

In India it had a similar reputation as St. John's Wort had in Eurpoe, that of driving away evil spirits and magic. Classic Greek myth tells how Ulysses used Mullein to protect himself against the wiles of the witch, Circe.

Dioscorides first recommended the plant 2000 years ago, against pulmonary diseases, and this has remained one of its primary uses, especially against cough. Leaf decoctions or herbal teas were used for expectoration, consumption, dry cough, bronchitis, sore throat and hemorrhoids. 

Mullein Tea, a very old remedy for coughs and colds, should always be strained through fine muslin to remove any hairs in the hot water, otherwise they will cause terrible itching in the mouth.

Leaves were also smoked to relieve pulmonary ailments, a treatment that was adopted by Native American peoples. They used the non-indigenous plant to make syrups for croup. The combination of expectorant saponins and emollient mucilage makes the plant particularly effective for cough. 

Oil from the flowers was used against catarrhs, colics and, in Germany, earaches, frostbite, eczema and other external conditions. Topical applications were recommended for warts, boils, carbuncles, hemorrhoids, and chilblains, amongst others.

Mullein is easily cultivated requiring only ordinary soil and moderate weeding.  Barely cover the seeds to germinate in 12-15 days at room temperature. Transplant 12-18" apart in full sun.

Seeds that are germinated in autumn produce plants that winter-over if they're big enough. After flowering the entire plant usually dies at the end of its second year, but some individuals, especially in the northern parts of the range, require a longer growth period and flower in their third year.

Under better growing conditions, some individuals flower in the first year.  Triennial individuals have been found to produce fewer seeds than biennial and annual ones.  Mullein normally makes a huge amount of seeds. When the stalk turns brown, cut it off and shake the seeds out into a bag or leave them for the birds to eat.

Resourses include:
A Modern Herbal:  http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/m/mulgre63.html
Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
Alchemy Works:  http://www.alchemy-works.com/index.html


1 comment:

Amy said...

This was very helpful, thank you!