Historical Lore, Legends, and Uses: The great respect and love
formerly accorded to Mullein can be inferred from the number and variety
of the folknames for it, of which the above is but a partial list. Some
allude to the feltlike, woolly texture and size of the leaves; others
Mullein was known in Greek as Flego and Fluma, that is, "to set
on fire." According to one writer, "it served as a wick to
put into lamps to burn." The leaves were rolled and dried and used
as wicks for oil lamps and candles, and made excellent tinder. The Latin
names for Mullein were Candelaria and Candela Regia. "The elder
age," observed John Parkinson, a seventeenth-century herbalist,
"used the stalks dipped in suet whether to burn at funerals or
otherwise, and so likewise the English name High Taper, used in the
same manner as a taper or torch."
Mullein has been a valued medicinal herb since antiquity. The Greek
physician-herbalist Dioscorides was one of the first to recommend its
use in curing diseases of the lungs, and it remained thus employed for
more than 1,800 years. Infusions of the leaves and flowers were used,
and similar preparations were administered to cure lung ailments in
swine and cattle.
Mullein was used to treat a variety of other ailments. Awash prepared
from the leaves, flowers, and roots soothed sprains, reduced inflammations,
and healed wounds. The flowers infused in oil were used to cure hemorrhoids
and as a specific cure for earache.
In our own country, several native American tribes used Mullein to
cure chest diseases. Since the plant was not native to America, this
usage was probably received by them (no doubt along with the lung ailments
it was said to cure) from the early settlers. The Navajos called Mullein
"big tobacco." They mixed it with regular tobacco and smoked
the combination to relieve coughing spasms. It was also believed that
this remedy would cure simple mental diseases, the use of evil language,
and the thinking of evil thoughts.
The Delaware made poultices by boiling the leaves of Mullein and putting
them into cloth bags. Applied to the joints, these poultices were said
to reduce swelling and ease rheumatic pains. The Catawba called Mullein
"gray leaf." They made poultices of the mashed leaves and
used them for treating sprains, swelling, and wounds. For lung and bronchial
troubles, the Catawba gathered Mullein leaves from plants that had not
yet blossomed and mixed them into a syrup with another plant called
"plum root." The Mohegans of Connecticut made a cough medicine
by steeping Mullein leaves with molasses.
Mullein was known to the Pennsylvania Dutch as Wolla Graut. The Amish
eschewed the use of tobacco, but permitted Mullein leaves to be smoked
for the relief of asthma attacks. To soothe nasal congestion and sore
throat, boiling water was poured over the fresh leaves and flowers and
the steam was inhaled.
In the United States during the 18oos and early 19oos, Mullein was
frequently prescribed for pulmonary diseases and physicians recommended
its use for curing diarrhea and severe headache as well. Until quite
recently, Mullein was a popular folk remedy in the Ozarks. Mullein-flower
tea was drunk to relieve all kinds of chest disorders, from mild colds
to pneumonia, and poultices of the leaves soaked in hot vinegar were
applied to swellings and sprains.
This last remedy was considered helpful for most painful conditions;
an observer who lived among these people for many years remembers being
told that a poultice of Mullein leaves was used to ease the pain of
wounds caused by bird shot. It also loosened up the pellets and made
them easier and less painful to remove.
Mullein was listed as an emollient and demulcent in the 1917 edition
of Potter's Therapeutics, which noted: "It has long been a popular
Irish remedy in pulmonary affections" (asthma and whooping cough
particularly). An infusion of the dried leaves in milk was recommended
as a valuable expectorant that also eased coughing and improved the
general condition. It was useful for cystitis, irritable bladder, and
diarrhea as well.
In rural South Carolina, Mullein-leaf tea is still employed (with the
occasional admixture of basil and pine needles) to relieve colds and
reduce fevers. Applied externally, this tea heals sprains, and a poultice
of the leaves mixed with fat is used to bring boils to a head. At one
time, large quantities of Mullein were dried and placed in barns to
keep mice away from the grain stored there.
The ancient beneficial properties of Mullein have not been entirely
discarded. The plant is included in many over-the-counter asthma remedies,
and modern homeopathic doctors still prescribe it for treating chest
complaints. In Europe an extract of Mullein is used in the preparation
of an Old World liqueur called Altvater laegnerdorf.
It ought hardly to surprise anyone that Mullein, companion to humankind
for more than two thousand years, became endowed with various occult
and supernatural powers. Not only is this the case, but these properties
long predated the medicinal use of Mullein.
The Anglo-Saxons were quoting an ancient legend when they observed:
"Of Feldwort [as they called Mullein] it is said that Mercurius
gave this wort to Ulixes the Chieftain when he came to Circe, and after
that he dreaded none of her witchcraft." They add, "If one
weareth 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 come near."
Much later, it became the custom in parts of Europe to dip Mullein
stalks in tallow and burn them to frighten away witches. The names of
Saints may have been invoked for additional assistance in warding off
the evil host, and this may account for names such as St. Peter's Staff
and Aaron's Rod. (Aaron, it will be remembered, is described in the
Book of Exodus as using his magic staff to overcome the sorcerers of
With the ambivalence so frequently encountered in superstitious beliefs,
Mullein had a reputation for being a favorite plant of witches. In England,
Mullein torche were burned to illuminate their Sabbat revels, alluded
to by folknames such as Hag Taper and Witches' Taper. Mullein was a
plant of Saturn, the planet of evil, who ruled all poisonous herbs and
plants of ill repute that were employed by the followers of the devil.
Mullein leaves were worn as charms to ensure conception. John Gerard
apparently believed they could have the opposite effect as well, for
he advised that Mullein worn in the shoe "brings down in maidens
their desired sickness" (which sounds like a euphemism for an abortifacient).
As might be expected, Mullein was used in love divination. A girl sought
out a Mullein plant and named it for her lover. She then bent the stalk
toward her home and visited it from time to time to observe how it grew.
If it remained bent toward her house, he was faithful; if not, he was
untrue. As a cosmetic herb, Mullein was used as far back as Roman times.
A wash reputed to restore to its original color hair that had turned
gray ~as prepared from ashes of the plant. During the Middle Ages a
rinse made with the flowers was said to keep the hair blond, but it
had to be used for a long time. Young girls rubbed their cheeks with
a leaf to make them pink; much later, Quaker women, forbidden the use
of rouge, did the same.
Suggested Uses: The dry seed stalks of Mullein gathered in the fall
are among the most decorative wild plants for indoor decoration. They
can be combined with other dried plants, but are even more effective
when massed by themselves in a large jug. This arrangement looks especially
handsome next to a fireplace. Individual stalks of Mullein can even
be used as tapers to start the fire.
An unusual recommendation involving Mullein is mentioned in an old
volume of the Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture ( 1933 edition) .The
first-year rosette, it suggests, can be potted as a houseplant, for
the sake of its attractive shape, color, and texture.
Pour I cup of boiling water over I heaping tablespoon of Mullein flowers.
Let steep10 minutes, strain, and sweeten with honey if desired.
MULLEIN FLOWERS IN MILK
This is a pleasant, nutritious drink that, taken at bedtime, soothes
irritated bronchial passages and relieves coughing. Modern herbalists
also recommend this drink to relieve diarrhea in adults.
Combine 2 tablespoons of mullein flowers (or you may substitute chopped
fresh mullen leaves if you wish) with 1 pint of milk. Heat to the scalding
point and let stand until warm. Strain and sweeten with honey.
Note: Mullein drinks should be strained through coffee filter paper,
to remove the fine hairs that cover the entire plant. These are irritating
to the mouth and throat.
~ Excerpt pp.99-104 - A City Herbal by Maida Silverman