Sunday, 20 September 2015

Garbling the mullein

I love this time of year.

We're not quite in autumn weather yet, but here and there one early scarlet or golden tree stands out on the green hills. We're hearing a few geese gathering on the river below us where they chat all night long. They sound like people from a distance. The nannyberries are ripening, too. So we're getting close.

The purple ones are the ripe ones. There's not much to a nannyberry (Viburnam lentago) but they're a great little nibble. (Don't believe what you may read on the internet about slicing them or putting them in smoothies. If you meet one in person you'll see how silly a notion that is.) They're maybe the size of an egg shaped blueberry and half their volume is a nice flat stone that's fun to kinda 'worry around' in the mouth while wandering down a gravel road. The taste is oddly reminiscent of banana.

Meanwhile on the ground the herbaceous perennials and the first year biennials are putting on a rush of growth. Mullein is looking like it is getting ready for bed in its flannel pyjamas.

This first year mullein rosette is a good 2 ft across. Those ratty leaves nearby are a pathetic, slug-eaten comfrey. 

I'll be harvesting some of that mullein soon. I'll make a very strong infusion and turn that into a syrup, adding thyme and whatever else tickles my fancy at the time. That is a fantastic cough syrup for the dry wheezy chest those of us who heat with wood often end up with round about February. For the last few years I've made a couple of bottles and kept them in the fridge. They last quite well provided there is enough tincture in there. We take it straight, or even better, put it into tea or hot water. The steam is a decongestant beyond compare.

I'll be making mullein leaf tincture as well, which of course will keep better than the syrup. Mullein de-congests, soothes, moistens and loosens stuck gunk. It has a gentle action on the lymph too as I mentioned recently. (If you follow that link you'll find more links to excellent articles on mullein by jim mcdonald and Kiva Rose.)

Now, once upon a time I made a mullein root tincture. This was back in the days when I tinctured pretty much everything I could get my hands on, even when I had no idea how it could be used. Pre internet, there just wasn't much information out there, but I had a hunch the root would be useful for more than the oft-repeated quote from Jethro Kloss that "Native peoples inhaled the smoke of a burning root for asthma". After reading jim mcdonald's take on the root for all things spine related, I began to use it for things like a kink in the neck or back. I found it worked very well, but oh boy, did I have to be careful with dosage. Granted, I am very sensitive and take very small amounts of most things, but more than 2 drops of mullein root gave me heart palpitations. That's scary!

However, it turned out to work well topically too, so when I began working with someone with a very messed up spine, I sent her what I had left of my root tincture. She's using it combined with aspen (to reduce pain and inflammation) and St John'swort (for nerve involvement) topically twice a day; and she's doing exercises, stretches and swimming. She's doing very well, too, although, like everyone, she has good days and bad.

Using a tincture topically means going through it pretty quickly, so I wanted to make her some more. I was pleased at the thought of working with the root again; although it was a long time ago I remembered how easily it pulled out of the ground when I found it in sandy soil. I remembered how smooth and white and pleasant the root feels when it is peeled. It is very bone-like.

Then things got tricky.

First, I had to find some. This is the first year in my experience that mullein seems to be in short supply. All plants have cycles of course, and mullein seems to be on a down cycle, at least around here. I could find it, but the plants were small and wimpy. I have my rosettes in the garden, but those are first year plants, to get good sized roots I need the second year plant, which looks like this:

But I wasn't going to use this particular plant, as it is right next to the neighbour's junk truck (not shown)

One day while we were gathering wild grapes from a wire fence next to a field, I spotted the tell tale spires a short distance away. Now rest assured, I always respect fences - but if they happen to have fallen down enough for me to step over and into an uncultivated field, I take that as permission to enter (don't you?), especially if I'm safely out of view of the farmhouse. It was an interesting field, poor soil, which all the best medicinal plants prefer, and nicely overgrown with black eyed susans, lots of vetches and cleavers and .. oh wait, I'm going off topic here.

Being a biennial, and this being near the end of the growing season, getting a good mullein root is a bit tricky. I want a plant that still has some life in it, but I don't want to take one still in flower either, because it just seems wrong to deprive any late-lingering hummingbirds or bumblebees of their food source.

I had to pull several; the roots are much smaller this year than they should be.

Always leave your newly gathered plants out of doors for a spell to allow the bugs to escape. Apparently, especially mullein! Legions of tiny bugs, almost like fruit flies. No idea what they were, just glad I didn't bring them in.

(An aside for gardeners - For anyone with an interest in establishing mullein in the garden, take note of that root structure. You'd think it would be a simple thing to transplant a first year plant, but as you can see, there is a lateral root as well as the one going straight down. In the first year, that lateral is but a hair. Break that off as you lift the plant and you are sunk. But if you find a second year plant that is gone to seed, shake a handful onto a lean area of your garden. It might take a season or two, but you will get mullein. At this time of year I am seeing teeny tiny 'first year' plants. So really, mullein is a tri-ennial. The babies show up in autumn of the first year, then do a rosette "first year" in year 2, then do the spike the following year.)

Some of the roots were clearly dead, so they were discarded. Those still viable were as tough as the bones we're trying to heal! My snips are dull (oh the shame) so I ended up splintering the roots into smaller pieces by working my knife into a notch and pulling down. It was a royal pain in the butt, something I don't remember from the first time I garbled mullein root.

Peeling off the root bark may not be necessary but it made it easier to work with. Note the pure white of the exposed root. Just beautiful.

Well of course I didn't get as much root material as I wanted. But as other herbalists of note find the whole plant as useful as the root for spine and bone issues, I decided to have a look at the stem. (I wish I had a pic of this to show you, alas my photographer was napping by then.) Under the slightly velvety covering of the stem is more bone like material, so into the jar it went. The leaves of the field plants were no great shakes, so I used a large healthy one from my own plant pictured above.

Now the next tricky part is the menstruum used. I always work with either vodka or oil, but my friend really wanted it made with rubbing alcohol. Boy did I dither about that! It sat wrong with me. But when I had a talk with myself and talked it through with Paul (my husband) (second brain) (and all around good guy), it was decided to give the lady what she wants. We all have to go with our inner bell, and it's her inner bell that counts in this case. I may have made and used the original formula, but I haven't had call to use it as much as she has. In that sense, she knows more about mullein root than I do by now.

That's 3/4 isopropyl alcohol, topped off with water. In other words, a liniment, not a tincture.

I have no doubt it will be effective. I do, however, have some issue with how I will know when it is ready. I usually go by colour, fragrance and taste. In this case, fragrance is out of the question, it knocks me over when I open the jar, and clearly I won't be tasting it. I'll just have to go with colour and time, the usual 6 weeks ought to do it. Mullein root, although white as bone, turns a tincture black. Leaf tincture, I believe I've heard, turns red. (Did I mention I have never made leaf tincture before?).

Personally, I prefer oils and ointments for topical use, so I'm going to start fooling around with a mullein leaf oil once I get a few dry days in a row (else it will go moldy from moisture in the leaf). The flowers, too, make a lovely oil. A drop or two in the ear relieves earaches and gently loosens stuck wax. This year, however, the flowers have been so rare I doubt I'll get any for that. We'll see.

It's been a great thing for me to have other people to make tinctures, oils and now liniments for. I'm expanding my repertoire beyond our own needs and learning more all the time. I'm also delighted that some of you are sharing what you're doing, especially as you're working with plants I haven't used, or plants I have used but in different ways.

Anyone out there working with mullein?


  1. I learn so much from you! I don't believe mullein grows here, though I will be looking. I love that you do things because you like them and they work, not because "some study said so."

    From 1883! A Note upon the Use of the Mullein Plant in the Treatment of Pulmonary Consumption
    "Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus L., Scrophulariaceae) is a medicinal plant that has been used for the treatment of inflammatory diseases, asthma, spasmodic coughs, diarrhea and other pulmonary problems. The objective of this study was to assess the biological activity of Common Mullein extracts and commercial Mullein products using selected bench top bioassays, including antibacterial, antitumor, and two toxicity assays--brine shrimp and radish seed. Extracts were prepared in water, ethanol and methanol. Antibacterial activity (especially the water extract) was observed with Klebsiella pneumonia, Staphylococcus aureus, Staphylococcus epidermidis and Escherichia coli. Agrobacterium tumefaciens-induced tumors in potato disc tissue were inhibited by all extracts. Toxicity to Brine Shrimp and to radish seed germination and growth was observed at higher concentrations of the extracts."

    Anti-inflammatory properties of the plant Verbascum mallophorum.
    "Verbascum mallophorum is part of a large family of Scrophulariaceae consisting of more than 360 species. Verbascum mallophorums contains diverse polysaccharides, iroid glycosides, flavonoids, saponins, volatile oils and phenylentanoids. Verbascum has been used in popular medicine for treating wounds, chilblains, respiratory ailments, acne and arthritic disturbances. The aim of our work is to investigate the possible antiinflammatory action of verbascoside extract from Verbascum mallophorum using a concentration of 100 muM. Our results show a significant decrease in the expression and activity of iNOS and extracellular O2- when cells were treated with verbascoside. Based on these results we hypothesize that verbascoside extract from Verbascum mallophorum has anti-inflammatory properties since it reduces the production of superoxide radicals and consequently reduces the activity of iNOS."

    What's in a Name? Can Mullein Weed Beat TB Where Modern Drugs Are Failing? (Full text)
    "Common mullein weed (Verbascum thapsus) has a large number of synonyms and old local “nick names” which connect the plant with mycobacteria. A strong history of medicinal use has been uncovered for the treatment of tuberculosis, tubercular skin disease, leprosy, and mycobacterial disease in animals. Here, we examine problems encountered in treating such diseases today, the historical and scientific links between mullein and pathogenic bacteria, and the possibility that this common weed could harbour the answer to beating one of the world's biggest infectious killers."

    Correlation between polyphenol content and anti-inflammatory activity of Verbascum phlomoides (mullein).
    "Verbascum phlomoides L. (Scrophulariaceae) (mullein) used in the European folk medicine due to its anti-inflammatory and soothing action on the respiratory tract is thoroughly documented in handbooks and scientific literature. Nevertheless, information regarding the influence of the polyphenol content on pharmacological activity is scarce."

    So. Yeah. Wow. That's some powerful weed, man!

  2. Oh, wanted to say. I, also, marvel at the pure white found inside some plants. Cattail roots have a pure white, starchy, interior. You don't see that level of "white" often, hard to explain.

    1. I'm starting to think that "when in doubt, try mullein" would be a good rule of thumb. It's powerful yes, but it *feels* very gentle in action.

      There's an interesting thing mullein leaf tea or steam does for coughing. Most of the time it thins out mucus and encourages a good, productive cough, which speeds things along and prevents the oh-so-common secondary bacterial involvement that comes along on the heels of a virus.

      However, if there is already a bacterial element, it temporarily quiets the cough. I'm not sure why or how, but it gives the lungs a bit of a rest yet it never seems to allow matters to get worse. That, I suppose, is when the antibacterial action is kicking in, and as that is taken care of (usually within a few hours but no more than a couple of days, in my experience), the loosening action again begins and the whole illness readily sorts itself out.

      Thanks for all the science-y stuff, I'll have a look.

  3. I tried a mullein leaf tincture this year. I placed it in a sunny location for 6 weeks and it did turn a deep red/mahogany color. The mullein was growing in heavy clay soil, near a small storm water pond. It was growing among St. John's Wort, bee balm and wild raspberries. I was thankful for the tall yellow spike to help me locate it in all the bramble. The roots were difficult to dig up, and what I got was very dried out. I agree that the stem does look similar to a bone and tried a tincture of that. Black after just a couple days.

    Thank you for the education.


  4. Oh that's good news to me that the stem tincture turned black just as root tincture does, thanks! I can see how the root would be hard to get out of heavy clay. Mullein can get so tall the roots have to really anchor it and they go pretty deep. Wait til you try digging out a burdock!

    Red/mahogany? That's so interesting. I don't usually keep my tinctures in the sun (except St John's) so I wonder if I will get the same colour.

    Thank you! It's great to compare notes.

  5. When I was on Cape Cod in June, I was going to gather a few plants as it was prolific. But forgot, grrr, nashing of the the teeth. Next June for sure. I am interested in some of your tincture when it is ready.

    1. Sure thing Nav, I made the leaf tincture today, it will be ready in 6 weeks, so ..let's say early November.

      You know, where ever you are, there is likely to be some around. Got a bike path nearby? It likes bike paths.

  6. Question but not about mullein. White willow bark.. would weeping willow also contain salicyn? I have to of them growing here. I can harvest some dangly branches and make tincture or infusion, no problem.

    1. Hey, Gabriella! Thanks for dropping in!

      The short answer is I'm pretty sure all the willows contain salicyn, as do poplars and aspen. Spring is likely best but you could try some now, some barks are gathered in autumn as the next years buds are forming. If it is fragrant, it has medicine, is the general rule of thumb. BUT I have no idea about the amount of salicyn it would have.

  7. I have one small mullein root which I dried not long ago. It is sitting in a glass jar on the kitchen counter. I open the jar to smell it each time I pass by. And smile.
    As you suggested, it can be tinctured to help with my nerve/muscle pain. BUT, my whole being loves just having it around in dry form. For now.
    Someone I was listening to yesterday on harvesting wild plants said that ' there are some people who talk to plants and believe that plants talk to them back. In my opinion, they need help and medicine.' I took it to heart, you know.
    What do you say my plant teacher? I know that there is a communication between my being and the plant world. Just a gentle flow of something. Nothing miraculous.
    If I need help, what would you suggest I take? Preferably, a wild plant please. Just wanted to fret:)
    Also, not sure about root to alcohol ratio. Would you elaborate on that please?

    1. Lodos/Zeynep, first we'll address THIS:

      "Someone I was listening to yesterday on harvesting wild plants said that "there are some people who talk to plants and believe that plants talk to them back. In my opinion, they need help and medicine."

      Tell that person I'll be waiting for them after school. Imma gonna punch their lights out. Sheesh!

      Now I suppose in one sense it's true, there are probably plenty of people who are conversing with plants who are only doing so in their imaginations. But there are plenty others who are really learning from the plants. The most important thing about learning to communicate with plants is to know our *selves* first. We have to be able to tell when our own sentimentality is acting as a filter, for example. Plants are kindly, but they are not sentimental, so if the communication is feeling a bit Disney-esque, there's a problem.

      I think that plant communication IS miraculous. Anything so healing, anything so out of the ordinary rates as miracle in my book. And there is nothing wrong with miracle - we don't have to feel we deserve them or that they happen to us because we are more important/special than others. That's the whole point of miracles, is that they happen to ordinary people. UNordinary people don't need them .. but that is a blog post for another day.

      Root to alcohol ratio for mullein root tincture is the same as any other - make sure the plant material is covered with the alcohol. But with mullein root, esp since it is dry, you might want to make a decocted tincture, I find I get the best results that way .. which I better do a post on since you are not the first to mention this lately.

      Slight correction - mullein root will act on the spine itself, the probably source of the nerve/muscle issue.

    2. *probable, not probably. Ack.

    3. " to know our selves first" is a process. And once you said that time is part of that process. I am working on it (or the other way around).
      There is a chokecherry shrub behind my work building. So much snow piled up here that I can hardly walk around for a few minutes. A few days ago, as I was passing by the shrub, a few dried chokecherries on a branch got my attention. Bitter! As I spit it out, cleaned my fingers with the snow, I threw some snow on the shrub. I am assuming the chokecherry said 'oy,oy,oy Zeynep' :)
      Who cares what it is called Christine. I was happy so the chokecherry :)

      I look forward to your post on the decocted tincture.