Mullein: Verbascum thapsus

mullein,-fl_webBy Jim McDonald

Mullein is an easily recognizable plant found throughout Michigan in fields, meadows, and anywhere the ground has been disturbed. It is a biennial, putting forth a rosette of fuzzy leaves upon the ground the first year, and sending up its characteristic yellow flowered stalk the second. After seeding, the plant dies. The dead brown stalk is an excellent indicator of where to look for first year rosettes, as they can often be found within 15-20 feet from the dead stalk. All parts of the plant offer an abundance of healing medicine.

An infused oil of Mullein flowers is perhaps one of the first remedies to think of in treating an ear infection, easing pain and speeding recovery time. The oil is simple to prepare: Find an abundance of flowering Mullein, pick the flowers and let them wilt for a few hours to reduce their moisture content, put them in a small mason jar and fill to the brim with oil… you may need to top it off again the next day. Set the jar, tightly capped, in the sun for a month or two, and then strain the oil into clean bottles. Because the flowers are quite tiny, about the size of a kernel of corn, you’ll need to have access to plenty of them, and use a small jar so you’re able to fill it. This oil can be applied with a Q-tip and allowed to work its magic. Mullein flower oil is often combined with infused Garlic oil (which is antibacterial and antiviral), and there are few remedies as effective for ear infections… I’ve also used it to treat infected piercings (not mine… so don’t go trying to figure out where I’m pierced:)! The flower oil also has an old reputation for deafness, though this assertion refers to problems arising from the accumulation of wax, in which the oil helps to clear the obstruction. It can be used to treat ear mites in animals.

Prepared as a tincture, Mullein flowers act to resolve swellings and ease the accompanying pain. I used a combination of Red Root and Mullein flowers once to treat an abscess in the ear canal, and the pain and swelling were quickly resolved (I was pretty impressed). I’ve used the same combination, along with ground ivy, to successfully resolve Meniere’s Disease that was just beginning to manifest.  The flower tincture used internally is also of aid in treating swellings, and acts as a local anesthetic.  It can also be mildly or even strongly relaxant; I haven’t quite figured out why it affects some people strongly.

The leaves are the most commonly used part of the plant, and among the first remedies to be thought of in treating congestion and dry coughs, as they are an excellent expectorant. An expectorant aids the lungs in expelling mucous and phlegm by loosening it from the walls of the lungs and allowing it to be coughed up; thus, Mullein will stimulate coughing, even though that’s the symptom being treated. What Mullein is really doing is assisting the body’s natural response to congestion – coughing – to be more effective. A strong tea, the tincture, and even smoking the dried leaves can achieve this end. Mullein is especially good for treating dry coughs that shake the frame of the body, and should be thought of whenever there is “wheezing”. I used a blend of Mullein and Plantain when I inhaled a bunch of plaster dust while cleaning it out of my house after the drywall was put in.  It coated my lungs, and I got quite sick, with difficult wheezy breathing.  The Mullein and Plantain started working immediately, and resolved the condition quickly.  Mullein combines well with myriad other herbs; New England Aster for quivering, reactive lungs, a bit of Lobelia for asthma, Wild Lettuce if the uppermost reaches of the lungs feel dry and tight… I could go on and on.

Few people know, though, that Mullein is also an excellent remedy for the lymphatic system. Folk herbalist Tommie Bass says it can be applied as a compress to any instance of glandular swelling. The physiomedicalist Dr. William Cook called Mullein an “absorbent” of “peculiar and reliable power.” He recommended Mullein leaves be made into a strong decoction, then that water used to wet more leaves that were then applied externally over the swelling. To further increase the efficacy of the preparation, Mullein root would be taken internally. The use of Mullein flower tincture to relieve swellings is also due to its lymphatic actions, and among the various parts that can be used, I think it offers the most pain relieving qualities.

mullein-rootIf few people know about using Mullein leaves for swellings, even fewer know about using Mullein Root for anything. Yet, it is an incredibly useful remedy. In addition to its effects on the lymphatic system, it is an excellent remedy for treating urinary incontinence and loss of urinary control due to a swollen prostate because it tones and strengthens the trigone sphincter at the base of the bladder. Northern California herbalist Christa Sinadinos elaborates: “Mullein root is valuable as a bladder tonifying agent for the treatment of urinary incontinence (loss of urine with out warning.) It strengthens and improves the tone the trigone muscle (a triangular area at the base of the bladder) and significantly enhances bladder function. It has soothing diuretic properties; it increases the volume of urination, while decreasing the frequency of urination.

Mullein root also has mild astringent properties which reduce inflammation in the mucosa of the bladder.  It does not irritate or over stimulate bladder or kidney function.  Mullein root can be used as a long term tonic for individuals with urinary incontinence, recurring bladder infections, interstitial cystitis, and benign prostatic hypertrophy.”  Christa offers flat out exceptional insights on this usage here (please note that pages 2 & 3 are mixed up).  One of my students used an infusion of Mullein root to treat Bell’s Palsy that occurred as a complication of Lyme’s disease, and it resolved the problem completely.  Years after that David Winston told me he’d been using it for Bell’s Palsy for well over a decade, and considered it useful in other cases of facial nerve pain, along with other useful herbs for facial neuralgia like Saint John’s Wort and Jamaican Dogwood.

I also use Mullein root quite frequently to facilitate “proper alignment”. It may be that there are broken bones I need to be sure line up, or it could be a spinal misalignment.  These are applications I picked up from Matthew Wood, though he uses Mullein leaves, saying, “It has a moistening, lubricating effect on the synovial membranes… so that it is hydrating to the spine and joints. It is often indicated in back injuries. People think they are untreatable and incurable, but an increase the synovial fluids will make the spine more pliable and comfortable. The vertebra will slip back into place more readily, pain and inflammation will decrease and the condition will get better.”

I can personally attest to Mullein’s usefulness in treating spinal injuries, as I’ve used it for years.  The first time I ever used it, I woke up with my back out.  I couldn’t stand up straight, and while my mouth was saying, “Ow, ow, ow…” within me I kept hearing “Mullein root, Mullein root, Mullein root…”.  I drove out to a field where I knew it grew, and searched for it under the snow (Mullein’s fuzzy leaves insulate it and it usually overwinters).  I found some, and as I was digging it up I “heard” Mullein root stores up energy the entire first year of its life to put forth its strong, straight yet flexible flower stalk; and using it gives us access to that stored energy.  I chopped up a root, made tea, took a sip then a breath and was completely better.

A year or so after that (in which time I’d used the root a few more times, always to more or less immediate results), I suffered the rather dreadful “slipped disc” while, when changing a tire on the side of a dirt road my jack slipped and I jumped back away from the falling car with a heavy tire in my arms.  Along with chiropractic, I used the rather agonizing experience to figure out how best to treat this condition.  I ended up blending together a formula with Solomon’s Seal, Mullein Root, Horsetail and Goldenseal to excellent results (I daresay…).  This was created not so much as a pain reliever, but to restore strength and integrity to the disc itself.  To address the attendant muscle spasms (which were the worst part, in terms of outright agony), I used a combination of Black Cohosh and Arnica tinctures, taken in frequent small doses to help ease the sensitivity & reactivity of the muscles.  The results were excellent.  I could literally feel the disc growing stronger and the muscles relearning how to be relaxed.  Even now, after a few years, if I overdo it and feel even a twinge of sensitivity in the disc, a few doses usually completely removes the discomfort.  It’s truly kick ass stuff.

Mullein root on its own, though, is also markedly effective.  Prepared either as an infusion or taken in small doses as a tincture, it’s been a lifesaver for me when working a bit too gung-ho has me wake up the next morning with my back “kinked” and not quite able to straighten up.  I usually take about 7 drops of tincture, stretch out a bit, and the kink disappears and I feel perfectly aligned.  While the occasions when this has worked are too numerous to recount, it doesn’t always work… just most of the time.  On the most recent occasion, the Mullein tincture didn’t work immediately, but took about a week,  (used concurrently with an antispasmodic blend of Black Cohosh and Arnica, a bit of Saint John’s Wort, and a visit to my chiropractor).  Among these, I know the Mullein was especially important because when I broke my bottle while away for the weekend, the stiffness and misalignment went from almost better to lousy.  When I resumed, virtually all the redoubled sensitivity dissipated and I felt more or less better in a couple days.

Others have found it useful as well.  On a recent visit to Michigan, Matthew Wood and I were talking about this little known use of Mullein, and comparing and contrasting his use of the leaves with my use of the root.  One of the participants, who, though completely new to herbalism and a bit overwhelmed by the onslaught of information, went the following week to get some Mullein (leaves; the root is quite hard to find, commercially) and sent me an email another week later, saying, “I’ve suffered with a herniated disc (the one between the lumbar vertebrae and sacrum) since my son was 15 months old.  I ended up being on bed rest on a cortisone “blast” for a week at that time.  The disc is really thin and the area has been fragile since then.  So,  My  back got really whacked out a couple of weeks ago and I didn’t want to go the Motrin route.  I purchased some Mullein tincture at my local health food haunt and by the time I was half way to Commerce (from Ferndale) to pick my son up my back was feeling so much better…  The Mullein has been a life saver.

While I haven’t yet used the leaves in lieu of the root, I had a remarkably lucid dream about how the leaves could be picked proportionally along the flowering stalk to the area along the spine that is kinked.  So, I’ll shortly be gathering mullein leaves and sorting them into “lower third”, “middle third”, “upper third” to see where that exploration leads.  I could tell more stories.  The point is, though, that this is an area in which Mullein excels, but is far too seldom used. Hopefully these elaborations will begin to change that.

Perhaps, as opposed to a physical complaint, the need for alignment is energetic… someone is scattered all over the place, and needs to focus and direct their energies.  Mullein root will assist us in such a need.  Try carrying some in a medicine bag, taking a few drops of tincture or rubbing a bit into your wrists or temples.  Mullein is one of the plants that’s ideal to use in such a way, as it’s spirit has reached out and touched so many people I’ve met, and among those many who really weren’t all on board with the idea of plants having a spirit and consciousness of their own.  For my part, I think I’ve had several epiphanies using Mullein each year since I began using it.

I look forward to learning what it has yet to share with me.