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Mullein

If you’ve walked PEI’s roadsides, coastline, or the Confederation Trail lately, you may have spotted rosettes of fuzzy grey-green leaves popping up all over (Photo 1). This is Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) a non-native plant with some very useful properties.

Photo 1: The first-year basal rosette of Mullein (Verbascum thapsus).

Mullein is a biennial, and those rosettes are the first-year plants. In its second year, Mullein sends up a flowering stem that can be nearly two metres (more than six feet) tall and look like something that would be more at home in the Mohave desert than an PEI backyard (Photo 2).


Photo 2: The second-year flower spike of Mullein.

The flowering spikes have a bit of a raggedy appearance because the many individual flowers don’t all bloom at the same time. Flowers at the bottom appear first, last a day or so, and then fade before those further up the spike bloom in succession. Mullein flowers are edible (give one a try next time you find them!) and flowers, stalks, and leaves can all be used to make fabric dyes.


Photo 3: The velvety-soft leaves of Mullein (aka Cowboy Toilet Paper).

The entire plant is covered in dense fuzz, giving it a velvety feel and appearance (Photo 3). Technically called “pubescence”, all that fuzz helps the plant during dry weather by reducing the amount of water lost to evaporation through the leaves. It also gives the plant the moniker “Cowboy Toilet Paper”, for obvious reasons.  (A less-obvious reason is that leaves have anti-inflammatory and analgesic [pain killing] properties, something that may be helpful after a few long days in the saddle!)

 

Mullein was brought to North America as a medicinal plant nearly 300 years ago. Its seeds contain saponins – water-soluble compounds that are toxic to fish and invertebrates – and were used by early settlers to kill and catch fish, a practice that’s not legal today.  Its uses in human medicine go back millennia and are being increasingly supported by modern research. 

 

Mullein’s most famous use is as a treatment for asthma, coughs, and respiratory ailments.  Traditionally, the leaves were dried and either smoked or steeped and taken as tea. If you’ve been to one of my workshops, you’ll have heard me say “don’t eat fuzzy plants”.  Mullein is a good example of this.  All those hairs can be irritating to the throat – not something you want anytime, but especially if you have a cough!  Mullein tea needs to be strained through fine cheesecloth (or a coffee filter) to remove those hairs before drinking.

 

Mullein extracts have also been shown to have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-oxidant properties, and a range of commercial preparations can be found in the natural remedy section of most drug stores.  Mullein can interact with some prescription drugs and so it’s best to check with your health care provider before using.

 

Although Mullein is non-native, it’s not one I’m particularly concerned about.  Each plant can produce hundreds of thousands of seeds that can last in the soil for decades, but it prefers dry, sunny, disturbed sites.  I haven’t seen Mullein become a problem in PEI’s natural meadows, marshes, or forests and find it almost exclusively in developed areas.  Now that you know what to look for, keep an eye out for this part of PEI untamed!

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1 Comment


I'll try it on my hemorrhoids!!! B

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