Mullein: A Hairy Herb

Mullein is an herb native to North Africa as well as to Europe and parts of Asia. It is now naturalized throughout the temperate parts of the world and grows abundantly in wild spaces. You will often find it along roadsides and in old pastures. The seeds can remain viable for decades, which means that it is difficult to eradicate and is considered an invasive species in most of the United States.   

The name may have come from the Latin word for soft because of the fine hairs on the leaves or it may be from another Latin name for a cattle disease. Mullein was used to treat the disease. The fact that it has been around for a long time can be seen from its extensive list of common names, which include Jacob’s staff and Quaker rouge. 

In Greek mythology, mullein was the plant that Hermes gave to Odysseus to protect him from Circe’s potions. Women in Ancient Rome would soak the flowers in water and use that water as a dye for their hair. 

The genus name of mullein is Verbascum, which is the name that Pliny used and that Linnaeus adopted. The common mullein is Verbascum thapsus. The thapsus part of the name comes either from a town in what is now Tunisia or in a place in Sicily. It is native to both locations. Denseflower mullein is Verbascum densiflorum and is also called dense-flowered mullein.  

When and how mullein made it to the Americas is unknown. What is known is that Native American tribes used it for treating respiratory problems. They mostly made decoctions of the herb but some tribes smoked it. 

The nickname Quaker rouge that was given to mullein arose because it is said that Quaker women rubbed the hairy leaves on their faces. The hairs would irritate their skin and make their cheeks red. 

Mullein is mostly foraged rather than cultivated. 

Mullein flavor profile

Mullein’s taste depends on which part of the plant you use. The roots and leaves of the plant are bitter with the roots being the more bitter of the two. The leaves have a hint of earthiness along with a milder bitterness. The flowers have a very subtle taste with a little natural sweetness. 

Health benefits of mullein

Mullein tea’s health benefits result from it containing ample amounts of:

  • Mucilage: The soluble fiber that makes the marsh mallow plant, okra and chia seeds all valuable for health is present in mullein as well. 
  • Vitamin C: Mullein is a good source of vitamin C, an antioxidant that is important for your immune system functions.
  • Tannins: Mullein contains tannins that help it to function as a diuretic, which means that you can use it to flush the body of toxins.

Use mullein for treating or protecting against conditions like:

  • Respiratory ailments: Tea made from mullein is considered an effective treatment for congestion from colds, bronchitis or asthma.
  • Viral infections: Extracts from the mullein plant have shown the ability to fight influenza and herpes viruses. 
  • Heart disease: According to a study on mice, mullein can help to reduce blood cholesterol. 

Common uses

The most common way to use mullein is as a tea. Because the flavor is not particularly pleasant, you can pair mullein with other tea herbs like mint. You can also pair it with gotu kola to enhance its benefits for the respiratory system.