Mullein, Not Just a Common Weed
Plus How to Make Mullein Tea
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By Karin Deneke – You will find mullein, a woolly-leafed, tall-stemmed biannual, along roadsides, in meadows, and riparian corridors throughout the United States and Canada.
During the summer months it is impossible to overlook these large plants, bearing spikes of densely distributed yellow flowers — towering above most vegetation. Mullein is the common name for this quickly-spreading plant, classified in most states as a noxious weed. However, mullein is not just a weed, it is also an herb.
Early European settlers introduced mullein to North America. Seeds collected in their native countries were planted in the gardens of their new homesteads along with other beneficial plants used in herbal medicine. Mullein tea has the reputation to treat various none-viral illnesses.
There is also a practical use for mullein, which in Latin is termed mollus — meaning soft. Its felt-like leaves covered with tiny gray hair, are soft to the touch and have earned the nickname “cowboy toilet paper!” Candlewick plant (another name for mullein) refers to lamp wicks made from mature dry stalks and leaves. And then there is the term, “torch plant,” because the dry stalk (with attached seed pods), becomes a torch when dipped in suet or wax and then lit.
Kings candle or Koenigskerze in the German language, describes the tall plant very well. Often, in ideal locations, mullein will develop branches reaching out from the main stem, thus resembling a candelabra!
In my sub alpine neighborhood, mullein plants appeared suddenly along roadsides and in grassy areas. I knew mullein did not fit in with the flora of these mountain meadows. On the contrary, it stuck out like a sore thumb. It took a while before I figured out how the plant became established.
For maintenance purposes, road-base unfortunately containing weed seeds, had been trucked in from a much lower high dessert elevation. I spotted a few tumbleweed plants emerging as well between the mullein — these however never reached maturity.
A fully developed mullein plant can produce between 100,000 to 180,000 tiny seeds. These seeds could lie dormant for years, until conditions become just right for germination. That explains how a mullein infestation can suddenly spoil a perfect environment.
The mullein plant is attractive during its flowering stage, but by the end of the growing season when tall dry stalks with attached seedpods remain in a given area, it becomes unsightly. I found a perfect use for these ugly stalks — stalks littering mountain meadows near my home. Always in need of fire starter for my wood stove during the cold months, I collect these by the bundle. It requires a sharp garden tool to snip off the woody stems — stems that ignite quickly with their oil-containing seedpods. A great addition to my kindling supply, and a perfect solution for cleaning up neighboring undeveloped properties.
When an invasion of mullein occurs in a given environment, it is not too noticeable for the first year. Being a biannual species, the plant completes its biological life cycle by the end of the second growing season, compared to perennials which come back for two or more years. The fuzzy, attractive leaves emerge in spring and spread low to the ground in a rosette pattern. The mullein leaves grow larger during the warm months, then turn dormant when temperatures drop.
The best time to combat this biannual invasive species is during the first year of emergence. The following year, the plant brings forth (from the middle of the leaf rosette) a tall stem covered with buds … buds that develop into yellow flowers and eventually produce thousands of seeds. By fall time of the second year, the flower-bearing stalks of the plant mature, and you wind up with extremely tough and fibrous stems that can unfortunately survive many seasons.
On my own property, I am at war with mullein, pulling the tap roots of young plants or removing these with a digging tool to avoid next year’s flowering and seed development.
Despite its reputation as a fast spreading noxious weed, there is a beneficial side to this biannual — the very reason early settlers brought its seeds to our shores. Mullein is known for its healing properties — to help treat non-viral infections, such as coughs, colds, and sore throats. In the manufac-turing industry, it is used as a flavoring ingredient for alcoholic beverages.
Mullein can be used in an herbal tea form or as an infused oil.
1- 2 tsp of dried mullein leaves or flowers
1 tsp of dried spearmint for flavor
1- 2 tsp of raw honey
Boil the water, steep the leaves for 15 minutes
Add spearmint for flavor, steep another 5 minutes
Add honey to sweeten
Mullein infused oil
Dried mullein flowers
Extra virgin olive oil
Place dried flowers into jar
Pour oil to cover
Leave in dark, cool place for 4-6 weeks
Strain oil repeatedly
Store in a clean jar
Use for common skin conditions, cuts scrapes, sunburn, and joint inflammations.
It is advisable to consult with your healthcare provider before using herbal remedies, most important if you are on certain prescription meds.
When collecting mullein for making teas or infused oil, make sure the growing sites have not been contaminated with pesticides. Refrain from gathering leaves or flowers near roadsides or highways.
Mullein thrives pretty much anywhere, and adapts to locations from light shade, to full sun. The yellow flowers with their faint honey-like odor are known to attract beneficial insects such as honey bees and butterflies.
Do you have mullein growing near you? Have you used it as a medicinal herb? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Originally published in Countryside September/October 2019 and regularly vetted for accuracy.