by Karyn Siegel-Maier
If you've ever encountered a tall, "woolly" plant with a yellow candle-like spike of flowers growing along the wayside, you've probably discovered a mullein plant. Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a very unusual and striking looking plant, at least while it's in flower. Late in the season however, its brown weathering leaves give it the ungainly appearance of dried tobacco.
Various combinations of names have been used to arrive at mullein's generic and common name, most of which either describe its fuzzy texture or its resemblance to a candle. The Romans called the herb verbascum from the Latin barba, to mean "beard." Some historians believe that the common name is derived from the Latin mollis to mean "soft." Still others contend that its name comes from the Latin word for "malady" or malandrium suggesting its medicinal virtue.
The similarity the flower stalk bears to a candle was apparently taken as a sign of its practical purpose since the stalk was once dipped in tallow and set aflame as a torch. Hence the Anglo-Saxon name of haege to mean "hedge taper." Such torches, known as "Latines Cadela Regia," were once used during rituals and carried in funeral processions.
The flowers were also valued for the yellow dye they yield, an aspect fashionable Roman ladies appreciated. When mullein flower stalks were burned as torches, the ashes were collected and used to produce a shampoo. The fuzzy leaves were often worn in stockings and shoes to provide an extra layer of warmth during cold weather.
Medicinally, mullein was infused in olive oil to formulate a remedy for bruises, insect bites, hemorrhoids and earache. A poultice was sometimes made from the leaves or flowers as a treatment for burns and boils. But, mullein's best contribution as a medicinal herb is as a cough suppressant.
Mullein flowers and leaves contain a significant amount of mucilage and saponins which lend a mild demulcent quality. In fact, the leaves were once smoked as a remedy for asthma, bronchitis and other inflammatory disorders. I wouldn't recommend doing so, however, since the fine hairs of the leaves are responsible for an allergic reaction in some people. Mullein does make an excellent tea or is a nice addition to cough syrups to ease a scratchy throat. For that purpose, it is also effective in combinations with horehound and slippery elm. Of course, you may prefer to sample mullein prepared as a cough drop so that you can benefit from its soothing qualities wherever you are.
Mullein Cough Drops
½ cup mullein leaves, packed
1 cup boiling water
1 1/3 cup brown sugar
Steep the leaves in the boiled water, covered, for one hour. Strain. Add brown sugar. Boil until the mixture reaches the soft candy stage, then pour onto a greased cookie sheet. With a butter knife, score out squares while the mixture is still soft. Allow to cool completely, then break into individual squares. Wrap each drop in waxed paper.