Weed of the Month: Mullein
When my colleague at the Red Hook Community Farm informed me she had added a mullein plant to our bee garden, I was delighted. Generally considered a weed, Verbascum thapsus is a striking and readily manageable plant with loads of educational and practical uses.
Though a native of Eurasia, mullein doesn’t deserve the vilification often reflexively bestowed on nonnative plants that have naturalized here. Its preference for disturbed soil, its drought-tolerance, and its juicy flowers and felt-like leaves all offer important ecological services for the local environment.
First off, just look at it! As a biennial, mullein’s first year of growth is a rosette of pale green, fuzzy leaves that may span just inches across, or several feet wide. The second year, a flower spike emerges—some up to 6 feet high—with bright yellow flowers favored by bees and other pollinators. In tiny sidewalk cracks, open lots, and it dry, rocky spaces, mullein cheerfully appears without overwhelming the landscape like some of its weedy brethren. In fact, a lone plant or small colony may appear in a disturbed area, live out its two-year lifecycle, and then never appear again as other plants emerge.
The bloom patterns on its flower stalk are fascinating to observe throughout the summer. Each individual flower lasts no more than a day. A few open at a time, starting from the bottom of the stalk and moving toward the top, in successive, overlapping spirals. Because the flowers aren’t all open at the same time, mullein does tend to look a bit scraggly—at once partially in bloom and partially in decline. But while you’re looking at the spike, do a pollinator survey to see how many different species of bee, wasp, fly and bird are coming by for a snack!
As an Old World plant, mullein has human uses that date back centuries. The stalks have been used for candles, torches, and lamp wicks. Some people used to line their shoes with the leaves for comfort and warmth. Others observed the flowers to predict the weather. Fisherman would drop the seeds in water to intoxicate fish and increase their haul.
The flowers can be used as a yellow dye and the crushed leaves work as DIY rouge. The plant has even been said to ward off the evil eye. The medicinal uses have included pulmonary, skin, respiratory, digestive, and circulatory remedies.
For respiratory ailments, mullein appears to be particularly popular. Though brought to North America by Europeans, Native Americans apparently adopted the plant as an additive to tobacco. Smoking this mixture was said to be an effective cough treatment. I am a novice in herbalism, but I hope to try a recipe for cough syrup using mullein, red clover, white pine, cherry bark, and honey, that I read about in Pamela Jones’ Just Weeds. The key ingredients are in their summertime prime, so now’s the time to collect!