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The Outdoor Pharmacy, part 3 – Mullein

October 19, 2011

Frontier Medicine, Health

white mullein

I have long been interested in learning more about plants.  I’ve always enjoyed growing things.  As a small child, my initial interest was flowers.  As I got older, I was fascinated to realize that food that is sold in grocery stores can actually be grown yourself in your own yard!

As a youth and young adult, I became interested in environmental and nature-related things.  Somewhere along the way, I began to read bits and pieces about “herbal remedies” and such things.  I was a product of the 20th century, though, so I shook my head, smiled, and clucked my tongue at such crude treatments.  I have a much different viewpoint now.  Modern medicines have their place, but I’d rather try a natural time-tested remedy first if I can find one now.

In a previous piece about plantain, I shared how useful it is for a variety of skin irritations, constipation, and other things.  I want to introduce a new plant to you.

Mullein

Mullein by a 4 ft tall fencepost

Growth Pattern and Identification

This plant is technically a biennial, meaning that the first year it produces only leaves and the second year a flower stalk and seeds.  It grows quite tall (up to 8 feet) though most I’ve seen have been 4-5 feet tall at maturity.

The leaf pattern is a basal rosette (like common plantain) but the leaves are angled up more as they get closer to the flower.  They are large, oval, and fuzzy.  The 5-petaled yellow flowers grow off a central spike.

I see this “weed” most often in disturbed areas like the edges of crop land and along the roadside.  It thrives in poor soils, even sand and gravel.  Most often, I see the plants growing almost in clusters along unmowed sections rather than as isolated plants.  They are usually taller than the other weeds, so they are fairly easy to find.

History of Medicinal Uses

This plant originally came from Europe and has a long medicinal history.  The leaves and flowers have been made into a well-strained tea for use as an expectorant, diuretic, for all kinds of lung ailments, gout, diarrhea, and for digestive and kidney problems.  The tea provides a nice mixture of vitamins and minerals and is reported to be quite tasty also.

The flowers have been soaked in olive oil to use as eardrops, though use caution not to introduce anything into an eardrum that may have burst through infection.  Mullein oil was also used for rashes, bruises, and sunburns (though modern medicine discourages putting anything but cool water on burns).

stalking the wild asparagusThe leaves are high in mucilage (a thick gluey liquid) which makes them good demulcents (meaning they form a protective film over irritated membranes).  This is one of the properties that makes it valuable for treating coughs- like honey, it will coat the sore throat to reduce the irritation and urge to cough.   (In Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, there is a recipe for making your own cough syrup.)  It has shown a strong anti-inflammatory tendency in experiments.

Ironically, several sources including Bradford Angier’s Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants tell how Native Americans quickly adopted this European plant to smoke in pipes and cigarettes to relieve asthma- smoking ANYthing to alleviate asthma has always sounded counter-intuitive to me.

The leaves can be used in poultices for ulcers, hemorrhoids, sprains, and arthritis for their pain and inflammation relieving properties.

According to Peterson Field Guide of Medicinal Plants and Herbs, scientists have confirmed that mullein works as an expectorant and has antiviral properties (tests were conducted with herpes simplex and influenza viruses).  The component verbascoside shows antiseptic, anti-tumor, antispasmodic, and antibacterial qualities.  Some also see an anti-fungal effect.

In addition to the flower and leaf uses listed above, “Asian Indians” used the stalk to treat cramps, fevers, and migraine headaches.

Alternative Uses for Preparedness

The Peterson Guide further says that the seeds can be used as a “narcotic fish poison.”  They can be tossed into shallow water where fish are and they will be drugged or killed so that they can be plucked out by hand for consumption.  The fish are supposed to be safe to eat because the rotenone and coumarin in the seeds are poorly absorbed by human intestines but affect fish readily through their gills.  As a precaution, humans should NOT eat the seeds of this plant.

Interesting tidbit, huh?

Here’s another bit of survivalist trivia-  they are considered “first rate drills” for lighting fires using the hand drill method of friction fire starting.  The Romans are reported to have dipped the flower stalks in tallow for use as torches.  I have seen references for using the leaves as excellent tinder or for candle wicks, too.   Lastly (and maybe least), they have been used as a toilet paper substitute, though one should be careful about that because some report skin irritation from the many hairs.  You might want to try them out on another body part first.

For more good pictures and information, see Steve Brill’s site.

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20 Comments on “The Outdoor Pharmacy, part 3 – Mullein”

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    It’s always neat to know such tidbits. I too need to learn more about local plants but just haven’t made the effort. Thanks for sharing.

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