A Golden Torch: Mullein’s Healing Light
Common Names: Mullein, Punchón, Gordolobo, Wild Ice Leaf, Our Lady’s Flannel, Hag’s (or Hedge) Taper, Torches, Candelaria, Quaker’s Rouge,
Botanical Name: Verbascum spp.
Parts used: root, leaf, flower, flower stalk resin
Energetics – Root: neutral, sl. drying. Leaf: cool, sl. moistening. Flower: cool, neutral
Taste: salty, bland, vanilla
This velvet leafed plant with its brightly bloomed flowerstalk is one of the most easily recognized and well known of almost any wild or domestic medicinal herb. Around here, the old-timers refer to it as Indian Tobacco and even the most botanically impaired individuals tend to know at least one of its names, although it often comes out as a slightly mangled “Mew-lin” or “Mully-in” from those who’ve only read about the oddly titled herb on paper. It is believed that the name Mullein comes either from the French word moleine of Celtic origins, meaning “yellow” or from the Latin mollis, meaning “soft”.
Although not native to North America, this now ubiquitous weed was quickly and widely accepted into the materia medica of this continent’s indigenous peoples, which itself is a clear indication of its broad applicability and benevolent nature. I view Mullein as an important guardian plant, emphasized in how it followed European immigrants to the Americas, and served to create an herbal bridge between old world and new world healing traditions, to the point that very few herbalists or folk healers could imagine a practice without this beloved and widespread remedy.
Mullein makes a very appropriate first herbal ally for many children or beginners in herbcraft. Its safe, wise and grounding presence helps take us deeper into not just this its own medicine, but into all herbal medicines. This plant provides itself as a guiding light and guardian for all healers who live within its range. Simultaneously a towering torch herb and fluffy comforter once called Our Lady’s Flannel, it has a long history as a benevolent and nurturing sentinel to healers, children and all those who ask for its assistance. Maude Grieve said that:
“Both in Europe and Asia the power of driving away evil spirits was ascribed to the Mullein. In India it has the reputation among the natives that the St. John’s Wort once had here, being considered a sure safeguard against evil spirits and magic, and from the ancient classics we learn that it was this plant which Ulysses took to protect himself against the wiles of Circe.“
I have also seen Mullein flower tincture work very well in guiding and providing focus and grounding to those who feel they have lost their way or can’t see their path. They often feel in the dark and disjointed, and the confusion leaves them tense and with a deep sense of abandonment. Consider it the perfect plant for those “hiding their light under a bushel”, instead of letting it shine, usually from fear of rejection or out of confusion of how to shine. Mullein will help provide the internal sense of safety and confidence needed for them to grow into their glory.
Some view this large plant with its tall phallic flower stalk and dermatitis-causing hairs as quintessentially masculine in nature, but my experience with its velvet soft leaves, first year basal rosette and sensual flowers is that this is truly an herb that teaches balance through wholeness and by embracing seeming contradictions, for it is both rigid and flexible, soft and hard, cuddly and prickly, weedy and elegant.
Medicinally, this is an infinitely multi-purpose plant and Tommie Bass himself said
“Mullein is an old-timer. I don’t think there is any ailment that Mullein wouldn’t give some relief. Everyone should have dried mullein leaves or roots in their medicine cabinet at all times.”
Additionally, it has essentially no toxicity and is both powerful and gentle in action, making it an ideal herb for children to work with.
Because of the multi-faceted nature of Mullein, I’ve divided this monograph into sections applicable to the various body systems for easier reference and comprehension.
Many people think of Mullein as primarily a respiratory, and while its use is really much wider than that, it certainly does excel in its healing and protection of this part of the body. For respiratory issues I primarily use the leaf, and consider it to be indicated wherever there’s a tight yet wheezy hacking cough, especially where the cough tends to come and go, indicating constriction beginning to go chronic. It is doubly indicated where there is respiratory dryness leading to difficulty with productive expectoration, and I often combine it with Mallow root for this particular difficulty. Jim McDonald elaborates a bit on Mullein’s usefulness in dry coughs:
“The leaves are the most commonly used part of the plant, and among the first remedies to be thought of in treating congestion and dry coughs, as they are an excellent expectorant. An expectorant aids the lungs in expelling mucous and phlegm by loosening it from the walls of the lungs and allowing it to be coughed up; thus, Mullein will stimulate coughing, even though that’s the symptom being treated. What Mullein is really doing is assisting the body’s natural response to congestion – coughing – to be more effective.”
Not only soothing and expectorant, it also helps prevent infections from settling into the delicate respiratory tissue. This makes it suitable in a great array of respiratory distress, wherever there is dryness or constriction, including many cases of asthma and other chronic respiratory disease or distress. Matthew Wood notes that in many cases where this remedy is appropriate, there will be concurrent lung and kidney weakness.
For acute episodes of respiratory constriction, utilizing Mullein leaf as a smoke inhalation can be very useful and provide near immediate results. For many people, the most practical way to do this is to take a couple of medium sized dried leaves and rub them between the hands until they’re broken down and fluffy. Then set the leaves into a brazier or incense holder, light on fire and then allow to smolder. Breathing in the distributed smoke often helps to calm respiratory spasms without requiring direct inhalation from a pipe or herbal cigarette, and is preferable for children and those with delicate lungs.
I include Mullein leaf and root in most of my lung tonic formulas and have made especial use of it in this year’s batch of Elderberry Elixir for added respiratory tonification and protection. It’s gentle and neutral enough in nature that its presence will never do harm and will most often help a great deal.
The leaves and flowers are also useful in many chest salves, and while it doesn’t have the penetrating volatile oils of the typically used mint, eucalyptus and so on, the aromatics of those herbs combine well with Mullein and seem to carry its lung healing effect much further into the body.
If there’s one thing Mullein is famous for, it’s as an oil for ear infections. The warm oil is useful where wax is causing a blockage and/or pooling of moisture but in general, I prefer the flower tincture for most infections, as it adds the drying action that helps to speed healing form most bacterial infections. Additionally, I find Mullein flower to be much more effective in the treatment of chronic ear infections when combined with Elderberry tincture. Be aware that if there is any chance of a ruptured ear drum, nothing at all should be placed in the ear and immediate medical attention should be sought. Also, if chronic ear infections persist with herbal treatment, a dairy intolerance should be considered and/or probiotic therapy in the form of fermented foods or supplementation.
Lymphatic and Immune System
Mullein (any part) can be used internally or externally as a poultice for lymphatic stagnation, especially where there are hard, impacted feeling glands or a sense of having rocks rather than glands. The leaves can be simply dipped in boiling water and, when cool enough, placed upon the afflicted area. Or the fresh leaf can be pounded and applied to the area as needed.
For acute cases, or sudden onset of severe lymphatic backup, I like to combine Mullein with Alder and something diffusive such as Beebalm or Ginger to get it moving quickly. In more longterm or chronic situations, I am more likely to pair with a less cooling lymphatic such as Redroot.
Along the same lines, Mullein can be very useful in the correction of long term sore throat caused by hypoimmunity and lymphatic stagnation, especially as an infusion with a small amount of Sage. Rose should be added where there is a specific sense of rawness or burning.
While ethnobotany and old herbals make it clear that Mullein is a very traditional remedy for troubles of this body system, it is only recently that Midwestern herbalists Matt Wood and Jim McDonald have brought it back to a well deserved popularity for these uses. Both Jim and Matt are both well known for their experiences with Mullein as an assistant to structural alignment of all kinds, from unset bones to slipped discs, and particularly where there is notable swelling. This use has been proven over and over by many herbalists including myself, in both animals and in humans. For a good understanding of where it might be appropriate, think about the odd structural deformities that can occur in the Verbascum’s flower stalk, the way it can look kinked and bent radically out of shape. If your spine feels like that, this is probably the remedy you need, and if the problem is neck specific, consider combining it with a bit of Vervain for addition alignment assistance.
It is also indicated where there is significant pain in the hips, especially upon rotating the hips inwards or outwards, and it feels like you have a corkscrew rather than a lower back. This sort of issue is often especially painful at night when attempting to sleep. Flower or root tincture before bed, and sleeping with a firm pillow between you legs will often great lessen or altogether resolve the issue.
Mullein reduces inflammation and pain, making it a perfect herb for use where delicate, complex bones such as in the hand or feet have been broken and cannot be set, or where there are complicated alignment issues in the spine (even in the lower spine and hips). I have noticed that it is often doubly effective in difficult slow healing injuries when combined with Horsetail tincture.
In addition to these specific indications, Mullein leaf, root or flower is an appropriate and gentle herb for almost any ailment related to the alignment of joint, bone or tissue. I use the salve, poultice, infusion or tincture in any case of broken bones, sprained joints, arthritis, and chronic joint pain. While Mullein itself may not always be able to fundamentally correct such difficult issues as chronic pain, it can often offer great healing, pain relief and ongoing assistance in the re-alignment process.
I have many times over now seen very small doses (3-5 drops) of Mullein root tincture greatly lessen chronic, achy arthritis of the hands, hips and other achy areas. I also find that a salve or liniment made of the same is very helpful symptomatically.
I find the flower best for acute pain from a recent injury or a severe flareup of a chronic injury. It’s often most appropriate where there’s overwhelming, usually sharp or burning pain, especially in the joints, spine (including neck) and locations of old breaks in the bone. The flower provides a sense of calm, peaceful well-being and is particularly indicated where severe pain is causing a sense of darkness, depression or hopelessness.
The root seems better for chronic pain, especially in relation to joint problems, old injuries and arthritis that feels achy and bone deep. Hard swellings with pain in either acute or chronic cases are a specific indication for Mullein. It also provides grounding where the pain threatens to unglue us or send us spiraling out of our bodies to retreat from the incessant pressure of constant pain.
Both flower and root can be useful in the treatment of nerve damage or pain that directly stem from or relate to a broken bone or misaligned joint, such as many cases of sciatica. I usually combine it with a more directly nerve associated herb like Skullcap or Vervain for such an application.
The flower is the strongest relaxant nervine, but both the root and leaf also have noticeable relaxant qualities, although they effect different people to varying degrees. For some, the leaf infusion, with it’s slightly odd but nutty flavor, is quite enough to send them for a long nap, while others feel only a vague calming impression from the draft.
I learned from Michael Moore to use Mullein flower tea and/or tincture as a treatment for the Herpes Simplex virus, especially for women where triggered by hormonal fluctuations combined with stress. I usually combine it with Elderberry Elixir, Linden infusion, topical Mugwort application and the appropriate supplements and dietary measures, and have had great success with this particular regimen as long as stress levels are kept under control.
Verbascum root will be found useful for incontinence due to chronic cystitis, especially when combined with an appropriate mucus membrane tonic. It is very specific to cases adult incontinence childhood bedwetting as a result of a weak trigone muscle. In fact, I consider it worth trying in any bedwetting situation not clearly related to emotional trauma and/or sexual abuse. Michael Moore says that:
“The root is also a diuretic and urinary tract astringent. One-half teaspoon in one-fourth cup of water drunk before retiring will increase the tone of the triangular base of the bladder (the trigone) and aid in preventing bed-wetting or incontinence, and is frequently useful for prostate inflammation or simple urethral irrititation in both sexes following sexual calisthenics.”
I have not yet had the chance to utilize it in a case of prostate inflammation but I can certainly vouch for the fact that it works very well for bedwetting in children as well as general urethral irritation from infection or irritation.
Additionally, it should be thought of wherever there are both kidney and lung weakness together especially with water retention, and if there is great fatigue and difficulty urinating, Goldenrod should also be thought of. However, kidney disease can be a very serious thing, so please be careful and see a health care practitioner if there is any chance of infection or organic disease.
Mullein is an ancient wound herb and soothes inflammation and pain while preventing infection, reducing swelling and aligning tissue for the best possible healing. It is specifically indicated where is a hard swelling of some kind and/or where there is a jagged wound unlikely to knit back together without significant scarring. Salve can be made from just leaves, just flower or some combination of root, flower or leaf depending on the need.
Tinctured plant can also be included in liniments for chronic or acute pain related to muscular stress or damage in addition to its use as a liniment for broken bones, misalignment or joint damage and pain. For use on slipped or bulging discs where there is sharp pain or burning, consider combining Mullein flower tincture with Chokecherry and Rose tincture for a more effective blend.
The black resin exuded by the scored flower stalk, is somewhat more strongly vanilla like in flavor than the rest of the plant. It is also mildly mind altering, and when collected and concentrated into a tincture, can definitely provide some perspective shifting experiences, and can be a worthy psychotropic ally for some individuals. More about this in future posts.
To whatever system and in whatever way Mullein is applied, it brings illumination and guidance and alignment to those who ally with it. Hold a leaf up to the sun and look at the light is refracted liked stain glass. Spend some time with the dew-kissed flowers and notice the intense golden mood they invoke. Dig the root, brush away the sand and dirt and run your fingers over its earthy firmness. Whenever all your other herbal allies allude your understanding and the subtleties of your craft escape your understanding, come back to the Mullein. Sit with the plant, drink the tea, carry the root in your pocket, do whatever you need to do to get up close and personal with this plant, and most likely, you’ll find your way lit by one of our species most persistent, gentle and dependable guardians and guiding lights.
Preparations & Dosage: Tincture, oil or infusion of all or any parts is useful depending on the situation. Mullein tends to be a fairly low dose herb, it is safe in nearly any quantity, but is strong enough that most adults only require a dose of 3-7 drops a few times a day of the tincture.
Cautions & Contradictions: None, except the chance of contact dermatitis caused by those fuzzy little hairs. The name Quaker’s Rouge is an allusion to the use of the leaves by young girls to make their cheeks rosy, which worked because of the irritating hairs. This is also why I don’t recommend using Mullein leaf as toilet paper, because for some sensitive individuals, a rash and certain discomfort can result.
References and Further Resources
Personal correspondence with and Mullein monograph by jim mcdonald.
Personal correspondence with Susan Hess
The Book of Herbal Wisdom, The Earthwise Herbal: Old World and unpublished writings by Matthew Wood
Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West Michael Moore
Herbal Medicine: Trends and Traditions by Charles Kane
Mountain Medicine by Darryl Patton