The rich history of Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) includes Greek legends, the Middle Ages, and Indigenous healing practices. Mullein has an ancient relationship with humans. It has long been respected for its medicinal and mystical powers.
Mullein in Ancient Cultures
According to Greek legend, the gods gave Ulysses a mullein stalk to defend himself against the wiles of Circe, the enchantress who turned his companions into swine by means of a magic drink*. Greeks fashioned mullein fibers into lamp wicks or used the dried leaves, and Romans dipped the whole head of the plant into tallow and carried this natural torch in funeral possessions.**
During the Middle Ages, mullein was imputed with the power to control demons. ** An old herbal says, “If a man beareth one twig of this wort, he will not be terrified by any awe, nor will a wild beast hurt him, or any evil coming near”*.
From ancient Rome to contemporary America, the Common Mullein earned the nickname lungwort for its impact on the respiratory system in both humans and livestock. In herbal folklore, Common Mullein was also a traditional treatment for earaches, rheumatism, diarrhea, and skin ailments.
The Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Pedanius Discorides, the father of pharmacognosy, first recommended the plant for pulmonary disease 2,000 years ago. The Indigenous Zuni people of New Mexico used Common Mullein in poultices of powdered root on rashes, sores, and skin infections.
Early American settlers and several Indigenous cultures smoked Mullein leaves for respiratory relief and lined their shoes with Mullein leaves to protect against cold temperatures. The root can be infused to relieve athlete’s foot, and oils collected from Mullein flowers were used to relieve earaches, colics, frostbite, eczema, catarrhs, and other skin conditions.
Other names associated with Common Mullein include hedge-taper, candlewick, hare’s beard, torches, blanket leaf, felwort, velvet plant, old man’s flannel, and Jacob’s staff. Common Mullein can grow up to seven feet tall and is often found on roadsides or other sandy, well-drained areas.
Common Mullein is a member of the Snapdragon family, but not native to the United States, but it is a vital pollen source for native pollinators, cultivated honeybees, halictid bees, and hoverflies.
Fun Fact: The great Eastern White Pine tree has also played an important role in ancient northern cultures.
*DeBray, L. The Wild Garden. 1978. Mayflower Books, Inc., New Yak.
**Haughton, C. S. 1978. Green Immigrants. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York.