When cold season approaches, and when earaches, snuffly noses, sore throats and coughs all around, it's a perfect time to talk about mullein. It really is a “go-to” herb for what ails you in cold and flu season. This herb is not native to the U.S. although the American Indians took to it quickly when it was brought over from its Eurasian roots. Hailed by Pliny the Elder as an agent of healing arthritis, back in the day when the mullein stalk was commonly used as a base for a torch, it has served many medicinal purposes down through the years – from healing back pain to inhibiting tuberculosis to calming asthma. The United States listed this herb in their selection of valid medicines to use, called a formulary, for centuries.
The Hairy Plant
There are 250 varieties of mullein, but for this article we’ll zero in on Great Mullein or verbascum thapsus. (If you look to the language roots, it all points to the plant being hairy! Another name it goes by is Flannel Leaf. Folks used to line their shoes with the leaves to keep their feet warmer.)
Where to Find It
If you know what to look for, you can’t miss mullein. It grows on roadsides or disturbed alkaline soils and is easy to spot by its clusters or rosettes of large, hairy leaves (first year growth) with a 3-6’ tall stalk of intermittent small yellow flowers shooting up from the middle with the leaves following the stalk upward as well. (Stalks only come up in the second year.) If you're too late to harvest mullein on your own, or if you don't have any mullein in your area, you can purchase ready-made mullein compounds, teas and supplements online.
What to Look For Make sure to collect the flowers when they are yellow, as when they turn brown, they no longer have the healing properties. Remember to leave some to reseed! Beware the seeds of this plant as the season ends – they are tiny and toxic! In fact, the Indians used to use them to get rid of unwanted fish species from their fishing holes.
How Might it Help?
The leaves are a super expectorant and have demulcent properties which make them a real aid for coughs and congestion.The Indians would smoke them (along with coltsfoot, I believe) for any bronchial troubles and breathe in the smoke for asthma relief. Since I don’t recommend smoking for anyone, we never used it this way! We have, however, made syrups and oils and teas with it. Mmmm – mullein syrup for coughs is second to none, with a unique flavor and quick response.
How to Prepare It
Basically you just gather the flowers from the stalks, lay them out for awhile to wilt a little (and to give the plethora of little beetles, etc., time to evacuate) and then you are ready to make either a syrup or an oil. The oil we use for earaches. In sterilized jars, layer some flowers and an equal amount of sugar, repeating layers until the jar is filled. Set on a windowsill for a week and then refill as the mixture melts and settles. Leave it set now for 3-4 weeks or even longer and then strain into a dark jar for storage. Voila! Cough syrup! Feel free to add to other syrups to multiply the benefits, like elderberry or wild cherry bark or willow bark syrups. For the oil, put in equal amounts of flowers and oil and then cap your jar, leave sit on the windowsill for a month or two and again – you will have a wonderful antibacterial oil to allay ear pain. (Caution: Never put anything in an ear that is draining fluid or showing other signs of a possible eardrum rupture! ) We have also added garlic (antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal) to our mullein oil while it cures.
I have also made a quick batch from dried leaves and garlic in olive oil in a frying pan when none was available already-made. This worked as well. Of course, you let it cool first. I used a small pipette to drop the oil into the ear. My son would always enjoy the quick relief it gave. Inevitably, he’d be up and at it again within a day. Once, we tried a cut fresh onion over the ear. It seemed to draw the infection right out, so if you don’t have mullein handy –it’s worth a shot to avoid a doctor bill! I would guess, if these things don’t work in a day, the infection is too far along and you will have to make the trip to the doctor. Be wise! A tea made from the aerial parts is a wonderful aid in any bronchial crisis or in cases of diarrhea. Mullein tea provides vitamins B-2, B-5, B-12, and D, choline, hesperidin, PABA, sulfur, magnesium, mucilage, saponins, and other active substances. To make a cup, use dried leaves and flowers just as you would for a cup of any other tea. We have a tea ball into which we crush mullein, and usually will add some elderblossom and rose hips and any number of other herbs, depending on our desired outcome. You can also make an herbal tincture with the aerial parts, leaving dried or fresh herb parts to set in either vodka or glycerin or even apple cider vinegar for a more potent source of relief. I’ve read of the tincture being a great analgesic for toothache or other painful swellings. Summarizing, mullein is an amazing resource for the home herbalist. The herb boasts expectorant, demulcent, diuretic, sedative, vulnerary, anti-catarrhal, emollient, and pectoral properties. And if you’re ever stuck out in the woods with some mullein nearby, you can rip off a piece of this Cowboy Toilet Paper as it was called in the old west and have your hygiene needs met in a soft, agreeable way!
Have fun! ~Carin
Disclaimer: Of course we claim no responsibility for your experience with these herbs. Everything we share is for information purposes only and is not to be taken as professional or medical advice. Do your own research! Always consult a professional. Be wise. Consider always the chance of an allergic reaction. We are all unique in body chemistry. We are NOT a medical professionals by any means, however we have saved our family a boatload of annoyance and money by being resourceful and using what is right at our feet – literally. See full disclaimer here.