If ever a plant were a jack-of-all-trades, the common mullein would be it. Throughout the ages, mullein has been used for many purposes. Thus its many names: the great mullein, woolly mullein, witch's candle, hag's taper, Quaker's rouge and cow's lungwort.
The Romans, Europeans and American Indians all used the woolly leaves to line their shoes for extra warmth in the winter. Roman women used the yellow flowers to dye their hair blonde. Quakers in colonial America, forbidden to use cosmetics, rubbed the leaves on their cheeks; the bristles reddened them. The dried stems were lit for torches and were thought by some to ward off witches and warlocks. American Indians and pioneers cured the leaves and smoked them for respiratory ailments and headaches. Mountain and folk healers wrapped the leaves over an injury to ease pain and reduce swelling. My grandfather, when he noticed mullein growing in my vegetable garden, said his grandmother wrapped mullein leaves with a cloth to use on his ankle when he sprained it playing football.
Where it grows
While native to Europe and Asia, mullein is established throughout North America growing along fencerows and roadsides, and in fields and freshly disturbed or barren ground. It is a biennial plant. The first year it appears as a rosette of woolly leaves close to the ground. The second year it sends up a tall three- to six-foot or more stem that commonly produces yellow flowers. Old-timers saw no need to sow the plant from seed, they just scratched a row in the ground where they wanted the mullein to grow. Before a year passed, its woolly rosette would appear.
How to use mullein
Mullein is used as an herbal remedy, but is not directly consumed. The cured leaves may be used to make a tea to ease congestion and respiratory inflammation. Pour the tea through a coffee filter to remove the bristles, as they may irritate your throat. The same cured leaves can also be smoked in a pipe or rolled in cigarette paper. Fresh leaves can be applied to an injury to relieve pain and reduce swelling. Cured leaves can be used in a poultice for the same effect.
Gather choice leaves from either first- or second-year mullein plants. (It is best not to harvest mullein that is growing next to heavily travelled roads or in drainage ditches.) Check the underside of the leaves. If fungus appears to be growing, discard the leaves. Use your best judgment and trim off any bad spots or areas of heavy insect damage. Clean the leaves by washing them gently under running water and allowing them to dry.
How to cure mullein
To cure, the best method is to use a needle and thread to string the base of the leaves in a row. Hang the leaves up high in a room with some circulation. The leaves are ready when brittle. Crush them with your fingers or cut with a knife, and store in a glass jar with a tight lid. Keep out of direct sunlight.