If you live in or have ever visited Europe or Asia, there’s a chance you might have spotted a velvety-looking flowering plant with yellow flowers.
Although the plant may not be particularly visually striking, meaning you might not have identified it on appearances alone, it’s possible that the herb you saw was called Mullein, also known as Verbascum.
Mullein may be a common and widely distributed plant, but don’t let that deceive you into thinking that this herb is just a garden weed like any other.
Mullein has been used in traditional medicinal applications for thousands of years to treat a variety of common ailments, from respiratory conditions to allergic responses.
In our guide to the Mullein plant, we’ll be covering taxonomy, identification, history, benefits, and side effects. We’ll also be answering some of the most common questions related to the use and growth of this weed, so don’t forget to read until the end!
Mullein Taxonomy and Etymology
Mullein is also known by its scientific name, Verbascum, and has been classified as a member of the Scrophulariaceae family, which encompasses figwort and scrofulaire plant species.
Mullein actually refers to a whole genus of plants, which comprises roughly 360 individual species.
It is thought by linguists that the word ‘Mullein’ is derived from the old Old French word moline. This word was originally derived from the Welsh and Cornish melyn, which means ‘yellow.’ This is likely in reference to the color of the flowers.
Meanwhile, Verbascum is loosely derived from the Latin word barbascum, which translates in English to ‘with a beard.’ The plant was probably so named because of its hairy leaves.
Once you learn the etymology behind the naming of Mullein (see above), you’ll have some key traits by which to identify the weed.
Possibly the most striking feature of Mullein is its flowers, which are light yellow and feature 5 individual petals.
However, Mullein only blooms between June and September for the most part, and flowers tend to only grow in small numbers. Therefore, it’s helpful to have some additional knowledge of Mullein’s identifying features.
You can also identify Mullein by its leaves: both the shape and the texture. Mullein’s leaves form a rosette shape and are proportionally quite long, growing up to 50 cm in length.
Of course, as the etymology of the plant’s scientific name indicates, the leaves are hairy on the surface.
You will usually find Mullein growing in large, natural spaces such as fields and wastelands, and in the right environment, this plant can reach heights of up to 2 meters.
A History of Mullein
Mullein has an incredible history that spans thousands of years and several cultures.
In Ancient Rome, the stalk of the Mullein plant was actually used as a torch for ceremonial occasions.
However, Mullein’s significance throughout history extends beyond the realm of the symbolic and celebrational.
For example, Jewish medical and healing practices have frequently incorporated Mullein alongside 22 other potent healing herbs. We’ll be delving into the many medicinal uses of Mullein later in this article, so stay tuned to find out more!
Mullein has also been traditionally used by Native American people for a variety of purposes, both medicinal and practical. In addition to incorporating Mullein into smoking, burning, and smudging practices for healing purposes, Native Americans often used Mullein leaves to make poultices and start fires.
Moreover, Mullein was sometimes referred to as ‘the miner’s candle’ throughout the years of the California Gold Rush during the mid 19th century. This was because, as the ancient Romans had discovered centuries prior, the stalk of the Mullein plant takes well to fire when dipped in tallow.
Benefits and Uses of Mullein
Mullein has an incredible range of medicinal properties and benefits. If you’re looking for an easily accessible plant to help treat a variety of illnesses, aches, and pains, this plant could be your new best friend.
However, please be aware that some of the benefits suggested by newer research need further human trials before they can be confirmed. Mullein may also produce some side effects, which we’ll touch on later in this article.
The ailments that Mullein has been said to help treat since its discovery include respiratory problems (coughs, asthma, bronchitis), congestion of the chest and nose, digestive issues, inflammation, migraines, and sleep issues. It has also traditionally been used as a pain-relief agent.
Unfortunately, the efficacy of Mullein in treating the majority of these problems is mostly unsupported in terms of hard, scientific evidence.
There are several important studies that have been conducted in recent years regarding the benefits of Mullein, however, and these do provide us with valuable insights into the potential of this plant for healing.
The majority of scientific evidence that we have surrounding the use of Mullein in a healing capacity surrounds the fact that Mullein contains polyphenols.
Polyphenols are plant-based compounds with high antioxidant content. Studies have also shown polyphenols to be effective as anti-inflammatory agents.
Additionally, chemical testing has shown that Mullein also contains other helpful compounds, including iridoids, flavonoids, saponins, and phenylethanoids, all of which are anti-inflammatory substances. Phenylethanoids have also been proven to be effective against viruses, while saponins can help to inhibit tumor growth.
Because of the antiviral compounds in Mullein, studies have been conducted with the aim of proving whether or not the plant can be effective against viral illnesses such as influenza.
The results of these studies have been promising so far, although further testing will be required before Mullein treatments can be implemented into modern medicine.
In particular, one study demonstrated that Mullein can be very effective against influenza when the dosage is coupled with an existing medication called Amantadine.
The suggested efficacy of Mullein against influenza symptoms may demonstrate some credibility to the traditional uses of Mullein in treating respiratory issues and congestion, although human trials in this area are still lacking.
Moreover, studies conducted on the antiviral properties of Mullein have indicated that the plant may be a viable treatment for herpes, although this suggestion does not yet have sufficient backing.
When Mullein was tested in a lab setting for antibacterial properties, it was found that the plant may be effective against both Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacterial strains.
Some of the strains scientists have suggested that Mullein might work against include E. Coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Staphylococcus aureus. All of these bacteria are potentially very harmful to human health.
Although the majority of E. Coli strains will not cause any harm to healthy humans, complications resulting from the ingestion of this bacterium can be fatal by way of kidney failure.
Klebsiella pneumonia can be life-threatening if it spreads to certain parts of the body, and in some cases, the bacterium can turn into a superbug, meaning that it is not responsive to antibiotics, which makes infection extremely dangerous.
Meanwhile, Staphylococcus aureus contamination can lead to pneumonia. In the most serious cases, the bacteria can enter the heart valve and cause an infection or even spread into the bones.
Therefore, the discovery the Mullein could be effective against these 3 bacterial strains is an exciting development in the overlap of herbal and modern medicine.
A particularly interesting study conducted in 2003 observed the effects of Mullein on childhood ear infections. The results were positive and showed a noticeable improvement in symptoms, especially when the Mullein ear drops were administered in conjunction with amoxicillin.
However, because the Mullein ear drops in question also contained garlic, lavender, Vitamin E, St. John’s Wart, olive oil, and calendula, it’s difficult to say conclusively how much of the positive effect was down to the Mullein as opposed to the other ingredients.
Potential Side Effects of Mullein
Despite its many benefits, it’s important not to view Mullein as a wholly beneficial and harmless plant because it can produce some side effects under certain conditions.
Although no major side effects have been recorded based on anecdotal experiences, allergic reactions of varying severities have been reported. Primarily, there is a link between Mullein and contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is an unpleasant reaction at the best of times, causing itching, irritation, and a rash.
Instances of contact dermatitis arising from the consumption of Mullein are not especially common. However, we would still recommend that anyone with very sensitive skin or a history of allergic reactions to plants avoid contact with this weed.
Additionally, Mullein has not been sufficiently tested with regard to its safety during pregnancy or for people with chronic health conditions. It also hasn’t been safety-tested for consumption by children.
Therefore, anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding should err on the side of caution and avoid taking any supplements containing Mullein.
Mullein should not be given to children to be on the safe side, and anybody who has a chronic health condition should discuss the consumption of Mullein with a medical professional beforehand.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the recommended dosage for Mullein?
Currently, there is no science-backed recommended dosage for Mullein. This is because the plant has not yet undergone sufficient trials to accurately determine at which point consumption may become harmful.
The only study-based evidence we really have to go on with regard to dosage is that Mullein ear drops have been administered in controlled settings for 3 consecutive days with no adverse reactions.
Herbal practitioners usually recommend no more than 3 to 4 grams of the plant to be consumed daily. However, this dosage has not been irrefutably proven as the optimal quantity.
What is the best way to consume Mullein?
Mullein can be taken in a variety of forms, so before you buy any Mullein-based supplements or go foraging, it’s best to do some research and find out which Mullein preparation will work best for you.
You can find Mullein capsules, tinctures, powders, ear drops, and lozenges through reputable health food and supplement retailers. Alternatively, you can make Mullein tea yourself at home if you have access to the plant.
The way you choose to consume Mullein will, in part, depend on the symptoms that are causing you to consider taking the supplement. If you have an ear infection or earache, for example, Mullein ear drops are likely to be your first port of call. Similarly, if you’re suffering from a sore throat or a respiratory condition, lozenges may provide you with more immediate relief.
Again, however, many of the speculated benefits of Mullein have yet to be confirmed by science, so we’d recommend consulting a healthcare professional before you take Mullein in any form. A doctor may be able to advise you as to which method of ingestion or application may work best for you, in addition to discussing the potential complications and side effects.
How do you grow Mullein?
You can grow Mullein from Mullein seeds, which can be obtained directly from the plant (propagation) or bought from an online retailer or seed store.
It’s best to sow Mullein seeds in the middle of Spring. If you want your Mullein to thrive, we suggest sowing them in some compost for a nutritional boost.
Mullein seeds take between 14 and 21 days (2-3 weeks) to germinate.
Although Mullein has been used for a variety of health purposes throughout history, including for treating pneumonia and other severe respiratory conditions, human trials have been limited, and the available research is still too scarce for such uses to be scientifically approved.
With that being said, Mullein has been proven to have antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have shown that the plant may be effective against several strains of bacteria, including E. Coli and Staphylococcus aureus, as well as being potentially useful against ear infections and influenza.
Mullein has not been tested for safety in pregnancy or childhood, so people in either of these categories should not consume the herb to be on the safe side. People with chronic conditions should also consult with a physician before taking Mullein so that potential side effects and interactions with medication can be fully explored.