Mullein is often viewed as a weed, an unwanted guest. Mullein’s intimidating size (it can grow to be 11 feet tall in its second year) makes it misunderstood. It is easiest to identify it in the late summer and fall when the tall flowering stalks are visible.
However, mullein is more beneficial than it looks. It can help restore the health of the soil in contaminated or depleted areas and thrives with lots of sunlight. Best of all, it has helpful medicinal uses.
The Mullein Plant
Over hundreds of years, herbalists have seen the healing effects of common mullein on many diseases including allergies, asthma, boils, bronchitis, croup, emphysema, swollen glands, insomnia, swollen joints, lung disorders, nervousness, pain (roots), pleurisy, pulmonary disease, sinus, sore throat, tonsillitis, and tuberculosis.
In North America, the most common species of mullein is Verbascum thapsus. Other species, such as V. virgatum, V. densiflorum, and V. olympicum, are used for similar applications as V. thapsus. These species have denser flower stalks than V. thapsus, making flower harvesting easier, and are often carried by seed suppliers who specialize in medicinal seeds.
A biennial plant, mullein completes its life cycle in two years. A sizeable basal rosette is formed of silvery green and hairy leaves in the first year. During late summer and fall, leaves can become upright and grow to be a foot long. The second year is when the flower stalk is formed. The growth of alternate leaves at the stalk’s base leads to smaller leaves as the stalk grows. Yellow flowers eventually bud, as well. The stalk alone is likely to reach a height of at least 6.5 feet.
There are five petals and five stamens on the flowers. Blooming begins at the base of the stalk and progresses upward. The flower stalk turns brown in the fall and often persists through the winter. Mullein stalks produce millions of tiny seeds that can persist in the soil for hundreds of years. The roots are thin, branched taproots and have a creamy color.
Mullein Leaf for the Lungs
While people were already suffering from COVID lung, smoke from West Coast wildfires made matters worse. My patients began texting me asking how to protect their lungs.
Mullein was my herb of choice for this problem.
The medicinal use of mullein leaf for soothing the respiratory system and relieving coughs dates back centuries. As a mild relaxant and demulcent, it helps ease congestion in the lungs. Smoke exposure causes inflammation and dryness. When mixed with the leaf, mullein flowers can also provide benefits in dry, irritating conditions such as this.
Mullein works wonderfully for coughs and lung inflammation caused by all sorts of irritants and pathologies, including particulate matter in the air and asthma. You will be amazed by mullein’s ability to soothe the respiratory system. The herb is gentle, making it safe for children and the elderly. A working paper documents how mullein can relieve symptoms related to respiratory diseases, as well.
To treat coughs effectively with herbal medicines, herbalists need to know the type of cough or lung condition. Is the cough dry or wet? Is it strong or mild? Mullein can be used for coughs, and when taken in tea, as a tincture, or even inhaled as a vapor, it can soothe irritated and inflamed lungs.
Mullein and COVID Lung
COVID-19 is accompanied by a dry cough that can be felt in the chest. Breathlessness is often accompanied by tightness. My patients with COVID lung have told me they could not breathe and had to gasp for air, and that it was very frightening for them.
It is not surprising that mullein can help COVID lung. Studies have shown that common mullein (Verbascum thapsus L., Scrophulariaceae) can be used for the treatment of inflammatory diseases, asthma, spasmodic coughs, and other pulmonary problems. Mullein is also an antibacterial and anti-tumor, and it can help heal pneumonia. Its powerful anti-inflammatory qualities may be the main reason mullein works so well to treat COVID lung.
Elsie Bjorndahl caught COVID-19 in the fall of 2021. A few weeks after her onset of COVID, she felt much better and thought she had completely recovered. But unfortunately for Elsie, her lungs became congested again within a week. That was when she made a call to me to ask what she could do about both her congestion and lingering cough. She also told me that she had breathing issues, particularly when she tried to sleep. Her chest tightened to the point where she could barely breathe. She felt as if there was a weight pressing down on her chest suffocating her. Her only chance of getting any sleep was to sleep upright in her recliner. I prescribed her mullein tincture. Within a week after taking mullein, she felt better; after a few weeks, her lungs were healthy again.
An elderly man named Noris Witt, who worked for years as a body man on cars, developed COVID lung on top of his asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Even though he was used to having sensitive lungs, COVID really got to him. He was quite sure it was going to end his life. His symptoms were the same as Elsie’s, but he also had a whistle in his breathing. As for Elsie, I prescribed mullein tincture, but at a higher dosage. Despite its slow pace due to his underlying lung issues, the tincture cured him of COVID lung. His asthma and COPD are both improving. He was grateful for his continued life.
Mullein Leaf for Stopping Smoking
Herbalists often use mullein leaf to assist smokers in quitting. To further support lung health, the tea or tincture can be taken internally while simultaneously using the leaf as a smoking herb to assist with cravings. There have not been any studies on this use, but for hundreds of years, herbalists have had smokers smoke small amounts of mullein leaves to wean them from their addiction, and it works.
When inhaled, mullein smoke helps relax constrictions and stop coughs. In the right hands, this method can have dramatic and rapid results, but it can also be overdone.
Topically Applied Mullein Leaf Has Several Benefits
Mullein leaves are large and have hairs that feel like dense, thick wool. These complex webs of fibers protect mullein from the sun. In addition, these fibers can be irritating to human skin, which can be unpleasant, but also beneficial if you need to improve circulation. You may want to wear gloves when processing mullein leaves.
Mullein is a rubefacient substance that irritates the skin, making it red and increasing blood circulation. Rubefacient has a wide variety of therapeutic applications. As an example, mullein leaves can be used on the chest to help move stagnant mucus, allowing it to be expelled efficiently.
It was historically common for mullein leaves to be applied topically to external hemorrhoids and varicose veins. A 17th-century physician named Nicholas Culpeper recommended mullein for piles, as did doctors Cook of St. Andrews, Harvey Wickes Felter, and John Uri Lloyd.
Mullein leaf can also be used to address lymphatic stagnation. It is recommended internally, as a tea or tincture, as well as topically over the affected area.
If you want to see how rubefacients work, rub fresh or dried leaves on your skin. According to reports, it was used to replace blush in communities that prohibit makeup.
Mullein for Joint Pain and Rheumatism
Mullein leaf’s external application on painful and rheumatic joints has been documented throughout history.
More recently, mullein root has gained popularity as a treatment for back pain.
As herbalist Jim McDonald explains, mullein root is remarkably effective by itself. “It has 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 seven drops of tincture, stretch out a bit, and I can feel myself shift back to alignment,” he says. While the number of times it has worked for him is too high to count, McDonald does say it doesn’t always work.
In his book “The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants,” Matthew Wood, a practicing herbalist for almost 40 years, describes mullein’s mechanism of action: “It releases synovial fluid into the bursa and disperses internal fluids into surrounding tissues, lubricating joints, muscles, bones, and ligaments. Therefore, it is a remedy for complex fractures, where the bone needs to be lubricated before it can be reattached. It is also indicated for inflexibility, nerve pain along pinched or irritated nerve tracts.”
Mullein Root for the Bladder
According to “Today’s Herbal Health: The Essential Reference Guide” by master herbalist Louise Tenny, mullein root is also used to treat urinary incontinence issues, including stress incontinence, pregnancy incontinence, menopausal incontinence, and childhood incontinence. Additionally, it can be used to treat interstitial cystitis and benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH).
Benefits of Mullein Flowers
Mullein flowers are best known as an earache remedy.
Medicinal oils infused with mullein flowers are available in health food stores and apothecaries.
While it can be used as a simple, it is often combined with garlic and/or St. John’s Wort in an infused oil. Infused mullein flower oil relieves earache pain while also acting as a lymphatic agent to help resolve infection around the ear.
Warm a small bottle of the oil in a warm water bath until it arrives at roughly body temperature. Then place a few soothing drops in one or both ears with cotton swabs.
Does Mullein Flower Have Antiviral Properties?
In vitro research suggests mullein has some antiviral properties against HSV-1 and influenza. Mullein flower tea inhibits herpes simplex virus (HSV-1), particularly in women and children who suffer frequent mouth outbreaks due to sunlight, food allergies, or estrogen surges before ovulation.
How to Choose Good Mullein Leaf
Mullein leaf is a highly nutrient-dense plant. In addition to helping with different diseases, mullein also has levels of calcium and magnesium that can be beneficial.
Mullein’s deep roots draw minerals into its leaves, but the plant can also absorb heavy metals. Depending on soil contamination, this could pose a health threat to humans. This is why I do not recommend harvesting any wild mullein by busy roadsides, railroad tracks, or near industrial areas. Mullein is cleaning up the soil in these areas, but it would be unwise to use these plants medicinally.
If you are using it to make herbal medicine, grow it in your garden or purchase it from a trusted source.
Tips for Harvesting Mullein
Making herbal preparations begins with harvesting the desired part at the right time. The leaves and roots of the mullein plant can be harvested at the end of the first and beginning of the second year, but the flowers can only be harvested in the second year because mullein is a biennial plant.
Often, you will find many mullein plants in one location. The plant is not an endangered species, nor is it likely to adversely affect a population.
Friends have occasionally asked me to remove the entire plant from their gardens. But to ensure a healthy population of wild plants, I take only the necessary leaves and flowers. In areas where mullein is scarce, harvesting in a way that supports future growth is especially critical.
The best time to pick mullein leaves is when they are fresh and vibrant, and while they are attached to the basal rosette. Ideally, harvesting should be done in the autumn of the first year’s growth, or in the spring of the second year before the flowers appear.
You can harvest the roots in the fall of the first-year plant or in the spring of the second-year plant. The roots should not be harvested after the plant has flowered or seeded.
Harvest the flowers one by one as they appear on the flowering stalk. Choose a plentiful patch of mullein, taking a couple of flowers from each plant. You may need to visit a mullein plant on numerous occasions to get enough flowers.