Common Mullein (verbascum thapsus)

At 6 feet tall with dense spikes of golden blooms, common mullein makes an impressive display in fields, ditches, and other disturbed sites throughout North America. Mullein is also called torch weed because people used to soak its tall, rigid stems in oil and then used them for lighting. The hardy biennial self-seeds readily and is considered a pest in many areas, but healers long ago recognized the plant’s virtues.

The Greek physician Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 CE) prescribed mullein for lung conditions 2,000 years ago. In North America, where the plant has naturalized, Native Americans found a multitude of uses for the velvety leaves and golden flowers. Many groups smoked the leaves or made them into a tea to treat coughs and colds, asthma, sore throat, and sore joints. Externally, they applied a poultice of the fresh, pounded leaves to cuts, swellings, abscesses, sores, bruises, sprains, earaches, and toothaches.

Common Mullein

Plant profile

Common Names: Common Mullein, Torch Weed

Description: Rigid stems up to 6 feet tall; silvery green, velvety leaves up to 18 inches long; dense spikes of bright yellow blooms, followed by seed capsules with numerous small brown seeds

Hardiness: Biennial; to Zone 1

Family: Scrophulariaceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Leaves and flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia; naturalized throughout North America; found along disturbed sites, such as ditches and roadsides

Medicinal use

The plant’s leaves and flowers contain antibacterial and astringent tannins and soothing emollient mucilage. Although little research has been conducted to support mullein’s effectiveness, the herb has a long tradition of use, especially for treating respiratory problems. Modern practitioners recommend mullein leaf tea or decoction for respiratory conditions, as well as for sore throats, digestive discomforts, and urinary tract problems.

The fresh or dried flowers can be used to make an oil infusion for external use, such as for skin conditions, earaches, and joint pain. To make mullein tea, pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 to 2 teaspoons of the fresh leaves. Steep for 10 minutes. Strain, then sweeten and drink as desired. Filter out any irritating plant hairs by pouring the liquid through cheesecloth or a coffee filter.

How to grow it

Considered an invasive weed in many areas of the United States, common mullein can be difficult to eradicate and is rarely grown in the garden. The plant thrives in full sun and open, somewhat dry locations. Harvest the leaves and flowers in summer.