Focus on Herbs: Mullein
by Lynne Latella
Before cotton became the popular material for lamp wicks, mullein was the substance of choice because the dried, fuzzy leaves and stems would easily ignite. In fact, the stems and flower were often dipped in suet and used as torches. In Europe and Asia, it was believed that mullein had the power to drive away evil spirits, and this was the plant Ulysses used to protect himself from Circe. Mullein is related to foxglove and eyebright, and has a long history as a cosmetic and medicinal ingredient. In the Middle Ages, it was used to treat malandre, a disease that causes boils to develop on horses. The word eventually evolved to its present name. Roman women used the flowers to dye their hair golden, and it has been prized for many centuries as a hair rinse for light or blond hair or for oily scalp.
Mullein has long been known and used to relieve respiratory ailments. Dried leaves have been smoked in pipes to ease respiratory irritation and hacking coughs. When the colonists introduced it to the Indians, they applied it as a treatment for asthma, coughs and bronchitis. It tones mucous membranes, reduces inflammation and stimulates beneficial fluid production to help with expectoration. Containing mucilage, it swells and becomes slippery when it absorbs water, thus creating a soothing action in the throat. Since it contains tannins, mullein has been used in treating hemorrhoids because of its astringent and anti-inflammatory properties. Steeped in olive oil, mullein is soothing and healing for ear problems, such as pains, aches and inflammation, and for application to skin sores and as a massage oil for aching muscles. Infused in hot vinegar, it makes an excellent poultice to apply to the throat for symptoms of tonsillitis, sore throat and mumps, and for hemorrhoids. It has been reported that mullein is often useful in treating convulsions in children, diarrhea, dysentery, ulcers and tumors. Laboratory tests have shown that mullein may inhibit the growth of bacteria that causes tuberculosis. Mullein oil destroys disease germs; the fresh flowers, steeped 21 days in olive oil, is an effective bactericide. Although all parts of the mullein plant is considered to be generally safe, the seeds are poisonous. Anyone with a history of cancer should not take mullein internally; however, there are several schools of thought on the use of preparations containing tannins. Pregnant or nursing mothers should consult a doctor. The fuzzy leaves can be irritating, so they should be put in a muslin or cotton bag before brewing.
The Coop offers mullein in a dry, loose form, in a combination mullein-and-garlic ear oil, as herbal salve, in cough syrup, tinctures, capsules, and in lung formulas.
Infuse 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried mullein leaves or flowers in 1 cup boiling water for 15 minutes. Drink up to 3 cups per day.