Reflections in Nature: Mullein once was more useful

The mullein plant, which has been in bloom for several weeks now, belongs to the family Scrophulariaceac (snapdragon), the genus Verbascum and the species thapsus.

Linnaeus named the plant Verbascum, a corruption of barbascum from Latin, meaning “beard”, referring to the plant’s hairy leaves. Thapsus is from the North African town of Caesar’s victory.

The common name of mullein is thought to have originated with “malandria”, a Latin word for blisters or sores.

From malandria, we get the English word “malanders,” an affliction of horses and also a meaning of leprosy. Another book tells me that at one time, mullein was thought to be a cure for leprosy.

Mullein comes from the Latin word “mollis,” which means soft.

Mullein, which is one of the easiest plants to identify, grows to a height of 2 to 8 feet, with white, woolly leaves growing down the sides of the flowering stem. The yellow flowers occurring on the terminal spike have orange stamens.

If you are still not sure what plant I’m referring to, it’s the one that appears as if it would make a good torch. As a matter of fact, the Roman soldiers did dip the stalks in tallow to use as torches that would burn for a long time.

Mullein is known by many common names, 27 to be exact, and all allude to either a part of the plant or its use.

Mullein is a biennial, with the first year’s growth only a basal rosette of soft flannel-like leaves that stay green throughout the winter.

In the second year, the plant sends up a tall spike topped with yellow flowers, which have five petals and a faint honey scent and bloom from June through September. The yellow flowers are crowded together and open a few at a time. The plant is capable of self-fertilization and is propagated by seeds.

If you were to study a mullein leaf under a microscope, you would discover why the plant is so abundant and able to survive in harsh conditions. The leaf has a network of branching (interconnected leaf hairs that crisscross and connect over the surface of the leaf), forming the “fuzz” on the leaf.

Water, no matter what form, whether it be from fog, dew or rain, will be held on the leaf, providing each mullein leaf with protection, even in the most barren growing conditions.

Even more amazing are the silvery gray, broad and wooly leaves that are arranged on alternate sides of the stem in decreasing size, with the base of each leaf extending some distance down the stem. Since mullein grows mostly in poor, dry soil, the leaf system allows water to be directed from the smaller leaves above to the larger leaves below, and then to the roots.

The thick covering of hairs on the leaves not only protects against loss of moisture but also against insects. Because the hairs on the leaves irritate the mucous membranes, browsing animals domestic and wild give the plant a wide berth.

Although the seeds of the plant are eaten by birds, it is said that after fish eat the seeds, they will become sluggish and able to be caught by hand. An ancient ritual of strewing mullein seeds into the water was used by fishermen to insure themselves a plentiful catch. The mild narcotic properties contained in the seeds are said to intoxicate and numb the fish.

In olden times, women used mullein as a yellow dye to color their hair. One of the common names of the mullein plant is Quaker rouge. Quaker ladies, who were not allowed to use cosmetics due to their religion, would rub the downy mullein leaves on their cheeks to make a blush. A green dye also was made from the leaves.

Shoes often were lined with the leaves to protect feet from the cold. Beggars were said to find warmth under the large woolly leaves, giving the plant another one of its common names, beggars blanket.

It is not uncommon to find plants from the previous and present years growing side by side. During the winter months, the tall leafless stalks appear as burned-out torches.

It is said that the leaves from the first year’s rosette make nice house plants to sit on a windowsill. They require very little attention and bring a promise of spring into a home. However, during the second year, when the plant starts to grow and bloom, it is best kept outdoors.

Mullein is another plant that is considered a weed but because of its medicinal value, tradition and lore, it has earned a place in our history.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.