Monday, July 29, 2013

Plant Story: Common mullein and its folklore

mullein, Verbascum thapsus in late summer
common mullein
Verbascum thapsus,
in late summer
    Common mullein, Verbascum thapsus, is a European plant that has made its way all over the world. The USDA plant distribution maps show it in all the U.S. states and all but Arctic Canada. It is a member of the Scrophulariaceae, the snapdragon family.

    The name mullein may be from mollis, Latin for soft, a description of the big hairy leaves, but it is possibly from the Latin malandrium, a disease of cattle, for which mullein was a remedy. There are several points of confusion about common mullein (see below). But clearly it has been known so long that its common name is based on Latin.

    Pliny called the plant verbascum, so apparently that was another name Latin speakers used. Linnaeus adopted Verbascum as the scientific name for the genus.

    The word, thapsus, is the name of a town in north Africa, now Ras Dimas, Tunisia. On April 6, 46 BC, Julius Caesar defeated the forces of Scipio at Thapsus. The battle was fought on the outskirts of the city and the city surrendered shortly thereafter, ending the war against Caesar in Africa. However, when I tried to figure out if that meant that mullein grows in Tunisia, I discovered that en.wikipedia says, convincingly, that thapsus was taken from thapsos, the name of an unidentified plant from Thapsos in Sicily. As far as I can tell the plant has been growing in both areas since prehistoric times. I doubt that it is native to all of Eurasia as the en.wikipedia article says. More probably, long before written history it migrated with humans to all those locations, from some much more limited homeland.

     Mullein has been used medicinally for a long time. Dioscorides (64 AD) recorded it as useful for constipation, ruptures, convulsions, old coughs, toothaches, inflammations of the eyes, wounds and scorpion-stings.

    Folk herbals often used common mullein, but modern usage seems to be bypassing common mullein for its relative, denseflower mullein, Verbascum densiflorum. The German Commission E, which evaluates the efficacy of herbal remedies, endorsed tea made from V. densiflorum flowers as an effective treatment for catarrhs of the respiratory tract. They consider V. phlomoides, orange mullein also effective, and that V. thapsus is the same as V. phlomoides. Other authorities (USDA plants; The Plant List; Flora of North America) consider V. phlomoides and V. thapsus different. No one has seriously reviewed the genus Verbascum worldwide since the 1930s, so it is hard to know. I'll talk about common mullein, Verbascum thapsus, its distribution and folklore, and leave whether it is an effective medicinal or should be merged with V. phlomoides, to others.  Grieve, Jones and Martin (see References) have nice discussions of additional characteristics of common mullein.

mullein, Verbascum thapsus large rosette
mullein, Verbascum thapsus
large rosette
    Common mullein lives one to three years, very rarely longer. It grows as a rosette of leaves, the leaves getting bigger and more numerous until the plant has enough energy to flower. The rosettes of soft leaves can be very abundant in a neglected field or on a roadside, making practically a carpet. The rosette shape is an effective way for a plant to monopolize a spot on the ground. The growing rosette crowds out or covers its neighbors.
common mullein, Verbascum thapsus, bolting
common mullein, Verbascum thapsus, bolting 

     When the rosette has stored enough energy, common mullein puts all the energy it has stored for several years into flowers. The tall flower stalks, up to 7 feet (2.1 m) high, support attractive yellow flowers the size of a dime (1.8 cm) that produce abundant seeds. The plant holds nothing back and so dies after flowering. (It is monocarpic, see discussion of monocarpy in previous post, Flowering Agaves).The flower stalks dry out and are visible through the winter.

    The seeds--small, numerous and durable--have spread the plant across the world.

     Since it is a conspicuous plant, common mullein has a rich collection of additional common names. In England, Ireland and the United States, those names include: Aaron’s rod, Adam’s flannel, beggar’s blanket, beggar’s stalk, blanket-leaf, blanket plant, bullocks lungwort, candlewick plant, common mullein, cowboy's toilet paper, feltwort, golden rod, great mullein, hag’s taper, hedge-taper, Jacob’s staff, Jupiter’s staff, Mary's candle, mullein dock, old man's flannel, our lady's flannel, Peter’s staff, Quaker rouge, shepherd’s clubs, shepherd’s staff,  torches, velvet dock, velvet plant, and witch’s candle.  Oh, good grief. Seems like every person who wanted to talk about common mullein made up their own name.

mullein, Verbascum thapsus flowers
mullein, Verbascum thapsus
    The old stalks standing in a field look like brown candles, but in fact mullein was traditionally used as a cheap torch. The dry flowering stalk can simply be lit and carried as a light source. It works even better if dipped in tallow. In addition, the dry leaf and stem material will readily ignite and so common mullein was used for lamp wicks before cheap cotton was available.

   Although nobody else seems concerned about the hairs, Grieve warned to filter mullein tea carefully because the hairs of the leaves can be extremely irritating in the mouth. A more positive use for the irritating properties of the hairs was captured in the common name Quaker rouge. Martin said Quaker women rubbed mullein leaves on their faces to make their cheeks pink. Brill added the comment that people using common mullein as toilet paper were "again creating a beautiful red flush on their cheeks." I had heard that from other sources. 

    Soaked in water, the flowers were reportedly used by Roman ladies to dye their hair yellow. That would require gathering a lot of flowers. Note on my photo that not all the flowers open at the same time. That is characteristic of common mullein.

    Grieve went on to say ashes from the plant, made into soap, “will restore hair that has become gray to its original color.” Mullein treated with sulfuric acid makes a permanent green dye, something I hope to try.  I've used common mullein leaves to make dye, mordanted with iron or alum, and gotten attractive but ordinary yellow and olive shades.

   The seeds contain small amounts of rotenone and coumarin. Eaten by fish, they can make the fish  inactive enough to be hand-caught, so the plant was used as a fishing aid. 

   Historically mullein was considered a potent charm against demons, even though it was believed to be used by witches and warlocks in their brews and to be their preferred torch.

    Grieve reported that Odysseus used mullein to protect himself from Circe. The online translation from Samuel Butler (1835-1902) describes the plant that the god Mercury gives to the traveler Odysseus so he can free his men from her enchantment. Mercury says
moth mullein,  Verbascum blattaria
moth mullein,
Verbascum blattaria
"[Circe] will not be able to charm you, for the virtue of the herb that I shall give you will prevent her spells from working."...As he spoke he pulled the herb out of the ground and showed me what it was like. The root was black, while the flower was as white as milk; the gods call it Moly, and mortal men cannot uproot it, but the gods can do whatever they like." Odyssey

     Common mullein has yellow flowers, so I don't believe that Mercury gave Odysseus common mullein. Other mulleins, for example moth mullein, Verbascum blattaria, do have white flowers, and are found around the Mediterranean.

  I found the same statement that Odysseus used mullein for protection from Circe in the 1864 translation of Herbarium Apuleii Platonici by Cockayne. While the Herbarium Apuleii Platonici was an early Latin herbal, Cockayne translated an Anglo-Saxon version of it, written between 1000 and 1050 AD. The Herbarium says:
Felt wort or Mullein  This wort which is named verbascum, and by another name feltwort, is produced in sandy places and on mixens. It is said that Mercurius should give (gave) this wort to Ulixes, the chieftain, when he came to Circe, and he after that dreaded none of her evil works.  (pp. 176-177)

The problem is that someone, probably Cockayne, identified the plant as Verbascum thapsus in the 1864 volume.

     I presume that Grieve, writing in the 1930's, read Cockayne and did not check in the Odyssey. We have terrific resources at our fingertips these days. At the same time, my interpretation is only as good as someone else's translation of Greek and Anglo-Saxon, and so very subject to error. 
   Why and how a plant would be a potent charm is lost to history, I think. Furthermore, such stories are often dropped as people write new plant books. In the Herbarium Apuleii Platonici, however, it further says about mullein:  2. If one beareth with him one twig of  this wort, he will not be terrified with any awe, nor will a wild beast hurt him, or  any evil coming near. (p. 177)  When you grab mullein for protection, remember that its not clear which species of Verbascum the Herbarium refers to.

   Another folk story I like is that country folk in medieval England used mullein was to know if their lover was faithful. They bent the plant toward the lover's house. If it resumed a vertical position, all was well, but if the mullein died, their love was untrue.

    Common mullein is a very visible and easily identified plant, with fairly clear records of it going back at least to Dioscorides 2000 years ago.

    We know a lot about mullein and yet there are confusions and uncertainties. Many plants have much less we could say about them, as I plan to write next.

Comments and corrections welcome.

References I used

The American Botanical Council. German Commission E Monographs: Mullein flower

Brill, "Wildman" Steve. Identifying and harvesting edible and medicinal plants in wild (and not so wild) places  (Link: wildmanstevebrill)

Butler, Samuel, translator. The Odyssey.

Cockayne, Thomas. translation of Herbarium Apuleii Platonici is online in Google Books  Look for: Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: Preface. Herbarium ...By Thomas Oswald Cockayne, Sextus Placitus (Papyriensis.), Dioscorides Pedanius (of Anazarbos.) search for felt wort. p. 177

Gunther, Robert T.  editor. 1934. The Greek herbal of Dioscorides. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Print.

Grieve, Mrs. M. A modern herbal. 1931. Great mullein. online at

Jones, Pamela. 1994. Just weeds. History, myths and uses. Chapters Publishing Co., Shelburne, VT. Print.

Martin, Laura C. 1984. Wildflower folklore. Fast & McMillan Publishers, Charlotte, NC. Print.

Nesom, Guy L. Verbascum (Scrophulariaceae) in the Flora of North America posted online 24 April 2012, viewed July 19, 2013.  Verbascum

The Plant List  (Note that of all those names, V. densiflorus, V. phlomoides and V. thapsus are all considered accepted names).

Talbot, Rob and Robin Whiteman.1997. Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden. Little Brown, NY. Print.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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  1. Well done! Nice and informative, well sourced. Is there a way to follow your blog via email posts? Regards, Mark

  2. Thank you.

    When I click on the comment option, producing this box I'm typing into, there's a subscribe by email link at the lower right. Try that.