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.
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?