Greetings fellow gardener!
As you may guess from the subject line that this week's feature is about Mullein (Verbascum thapsus).
I really don't know quite where to begin with this plant since it and I have been somewhat intertwined across time and as you probably know very well, feelings are often difficult to express in mere words. :)
Perhaps I should begin near the beginning of my experience with this plant in the days of my early teens wandering, exploring, feeling, a small portion of the great northwoods near the Sylvania tract of the Ottawa national forest in Michigan's upper peninsula where I would spend my summers.
For me it was a place that swirled in the mystical realm that is the interwoven connectivity of all things that exist. Deep and ancient forests dotted with rock bottom spring fed lakes of crystal pure water teeming with fish. Deer, Bear, & Eagle were all fairly common encounters there. A peaceful place where humans lived pretty much in harmony with their surroundings. The locals called it "God's country".
It was and probably still is a place where all that is good and that which is bad as well are easily observed.
My first memories of encountering native Americans (other than television) were of the cheaply built frame houses that looked more like a federal housing project than a settlement of the once proud and powerful Ojibwe.
One historian recalls their status in the days before European conquest with this: "No other tribe has ever come close to controlling so vast an area as the Ojibwe did at this time (1800). White settlement ultimately took most of their land and forced them onto reservations, but with the exception of two small bands, the Ojibwe have remained in their homeland."
Their settlement near the headwaters of the Wisconsin river at Lac Vieux Desert was also adjacent to a toxic waste dump.
I can see the Huge fences and gates with their federal warnings posted clearly in my mind to this day. The dump belongs to Federal government and contains military and other industrial waste.
Today the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of Lac Vieux Desert operates a large casino complex. It's been nearly 20 years now since the first tribal elder figured out how to embezzle a big chunk of cash and scoot off to South America. How well our culture has shared it's wisdom with the First Nations.
Back in my early teens when my perceptions of the world were somewhat simpler and in those areas where man had cut roads or clear cut a big chunk of forest I would often find a broad leaved plant that I called "wild tobacco". Being rather fond of my little corn cob pipe and seldom having anything to put in it except for the times when I could get my Dad to buy me a pouch of cherry or apple pipe tobacco, I would pick the dry leaves around the base of the plant and smoke them. Sometimes when I had no pipe with me, and found myself as much as ten miles out into the woods on foot, or as many as 50 when Pop finally let me have a mini bike, I'd find a creekbed, shape a stone by chipping it on another, and cut myself a wooden bowl to smoke the "wild tobacco".
Little did I realize that I'd been following a medicinal practice of our pioneering and native ancestors.
Upon meeting my genetic parents 13 years ago my birthfather would talk about the various wild herbs that he and his family would gather when he was a child. These simple country farming folk drew their sustenance from the land in much the same way as their ancestors did when they came westward with, or as some family members have suggested, ahead of, Daniel Boone.
When my birthfather was a child during the depression he and his siblings were often sent out at various times of the year to pick things like "wormseed", "wild sage", "life everlasting" and mullein. All of these were things his Grandmother, a Cherokee "medicine woman" for lack of a better term, had prescribed as prevention and treatment for various ailments the family might encounter.
Wormseed, a plant I have yet to identify, was used to prevent gastro-intestinal worms. In a recent discussion with my B-dad he said "you see, in them days you didn't have no refridgeration and people got worms a lot", "if you ate wormseed you didn't get worms".
Textbooks will often refer to Verbascum thapsus as "Great Mullein" although as many as 40 common names are recorded for this plant.
See why we horticulturists prefer the scientific nomenclature? You always know what you're talking about with anyone else on the planet.
I could talk about things like "Hig candlewick", "feltwort", "Adam's rod", "Jacob's staff", "Bullick's lungwort", "Hare's beard" or "Iceleaf" and unless you knew all of them you'd have no clue that I was talking about the same plant I called "wild tobacco" as a teenager tromping around in God's country. :)
Mullein was used by my birthfather's family as a tea made by boiling the leaves in water primarily from fall through winter and into early spring to keep away cough and cold. I've been told that some smoked it on occasion for a more immediate effect to clear congestion but that it was nearly always taken as a tea.
To the best of my knowledge my Uncle Harold and I are the only ones still practicing this. We also supplement it by eating raw garlic and inhaling steam from a boiling pot of garden sage (Salvia officinalis) when necessary. Neither of us has had a winter cold, flu or other common winter ailment during the the time we've kept up our winter diet of naturals. I have only recently put Mullein into the mix and have kept winter colds at bay with sage and garlic for years.
Mullein tea for me needs no sweetening since it's flavor is slightly sweet by nature and similar to chamomile.
Being a smoker I'll often light up a bowl of mullein while watching TV rather than a cigarette. I've long since lost the corn cob from my childhood. :) Today I have what is commonly called a "trade pipe" by artifact collectors. These were made by early settlers and used to trade with the Natives for goods & services. Mine came from a Native mound on a private farm and it's very likely that it's original owner used it to smoke Mullein as well. Here's a picture of it. I've got a standard pipe stem on it. It's original owner would have typically inserted a hollow reed. Perhaps one of these days I'll carve a nice stem out of antler or bone more befitting it's antiquity. :)
Although Mullein is accepted as a native plant since it was used by just about every native tribe on the continent, it was actually introduced by settlers in the early 1700's who brought it over from Europe for it's medicinal value. They also apparently used it as a piscicide to control or eradicate native fish populations so their introduced species could become dominant. This ability is due to the presence of rotenone in the seeds. Rotenone is often used today as an organic insecticide. In the process of researching Mullein and it's various compounds I found this quote on the rotenone page at wikipedia,
" Rotenone is classified by the World Health Organization as moderately hazardous. It is mildly toxic to humans and other mammals, but extremely toxic to insects and aquatic life including fish. This higher toxicity in fish and insects is due to the fact that the lipophilic rotenone is easily taken up through the gills or trachea, but not as easily through the skin or through the gastrointestinal tract.
The lowest lethal dose for a child is 143 mg/kg. Human deaths attributed to Rotenone are rare because its irritating action causes vomiting. Deliberate ingestion of rotenone can be fatal.
The compound breaks down when exposed to sunlight and usually has a short lifetime of six days in the environment. In water rotenone may last six months.
Rotenone is classified by the USDA National Organic Program as a nonsynthetic and is allowed to be used to grow "organic" produce."
FYI, when using wikipedia, for those who may not realize this, when they include a "citation needed" to a particular bit it means that the information has not been substantiated from a reliable source.
As always I strongly encourage the use of one's head for something other than a place to grow hair, as my 8th grade algebra teacher used to put it, when approaching things in your diet, your garden, or life in general.
Just because something is "certified organic" or comes from a natural source does not necessarily mean that it is safe to blindly play around with.
Ever take the time to listen to the disclaimers at the end of those patent medicine commercials? Just because you can get it at the drugstore does not mean it's safe either.
If you take the time to do the math in the above expample a 40 lb. kid would have to eat about 1.45 oz of PURE rotenone. A bag of powder that is 20% rotenone now makes the amount close to a 1/2 pound. That may well amount to twice the kid's body weight in Mullein seed.
See what I'm driving at? Think, ask questions, read the label, do the math, then make a decision.
Medicinal use of this plant goes back thousands of years as evidenced by this excerpt from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verbascum_thapsus#Uses
"Dioscorides first recommended the plant 2000 years ago, against pulmonary diseases, and this has remained one of its primary uses, especially against cough. Leaf decoctions or herbal teas were used for expectoration, consumption, dry cough, bronchitis, sore throat and hemorrhoids. Leaves were also smoked against pulmonary ailments, a tradition that in America was rapidly transmitted to Native American peoples. They used the non-indigenous plant to make syrups against croup. The combination of expectorant saponins and emollient mucilage makes the plant particularly effective for cough. All preparations meant to be drunk have to be finely filtered to eliminate the irritating hairs."
Personally I have not found the hairs to be an issue when making tea with Mullein. I use a finely screened stainless tea ball with about 4 small to medium sized Mullein leaves in it and drop it in the bottom half of an old double boiler. I find that if I let the pot simmer until half the water has evaporated I get about 24oz of tea at a concentration of taste similar to commercial herbal teas.
I found a very interesting article here http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/m/mulgre63.html#med that although is not cited as well as articles on wikipedia has some very interesting information about historic uses of Mullein including hair & fabric dye.
An excerpt of which is this:
"An oil produced by macerating Mullein flowers in olive oil in a corked bottle, during prolonged exposure to the sun, or by keeping near the fire for several days, is used as a local application in country districts in Germany for piles and other mucus membrane inflammation, and also for frost bites and bruises. Mullein oil is recommended for earache and discharge from the ear, and for any eczema of the external ear and its canal. Dr. Fernie (Herbal Simples) states that some of the most brilliant results have been obtained in suppurative inflammation of the inner ear by a single application of Mullein oil, and that in acute or chronic cases, two or three drops of this oil should be made to fall in the ear twice or thrice in the day.
Mullein oil is a valuable destroyer of disease germs. The fresh flowers, steeped for 21 days in olive oil, are said to make an admirable bactericide. Gerarde tells us that 'Figs do not putrifie at all that are wrapped in the leaves of Mullein.'
An alcoholic tincture is prepared by homeopathic chemists, from the fresh herb with spirits of wine, which has proved beneficial for migraine or sick headache of long standing, with oppression of the ear. From 8 to 10 drops of the tincture are given as a dose, with cold water, repeated frequently."
Apparently modern herbalists are also using Mullein for ear infection as referenced by this recipe entitled "how to cure an earache naturally using Mullein drops"
The recipe uses Mullein flowers and olive oil.
Mullein can also be very attractive in the garden as well. I found a beautiful picture of mullein used in conjunction with other herbs & ornamentals here http://picasaweb.google.com/Jeannie63/GardenPicturesBackGarden/photo#5091887043236672850
As you can see from that picture it's effect is very similar to Foxglove.
Here again I have to stress the importance of challenging preconceptions.
If one were simply to have looked at the encyclopedic references or pure scientific study of the plant one would not presume the plant in Jeannie's garden to be as lush and beautiful as it is. But there it is. Lush, beautiful, healthy & happy in other than the crappy soil the purely scientific references say that it needs. I'm sure her soil does drain well and the plant is more than likely getting at least some afternoon sun.
I've been giving a lot of thought to preconceptions this winter. So much so that I woke yesterday with what may well become my "Funke phrase" of 2008 in the first moments of waking consciousness,
"Preconceptions are inevitable in the human psyche.
It is how one deals with those preconceptions that will demonstrate the intellectual maturity of the individual."
If so it'll go along with my garden gospel of 2005 "Grow the roots, the tops will follow, grow the soul, or the body is hollow" and my observation of 2006/07 "humans and sheep, 46 chromosomes each, coincidence?, I think not."
Like Groucho, I got a million of 'em :) Maybe one day I'll go through the notebooks and write 'em all down so folks can e-mail 'em around the web and amuse each other :)
As soon as the weather breaks I plan on adding a mullein plant to my herb garden. It is a biennial and must be allowed to self sow in order to naturalize, so if you do plant one don't use products like preen in it's vicinity.
We've got a gorgeous crop of Mullein plants in 6"pots that have been kept in a cool spot in the greenhouses and they should flower this year.
I've been getting mine by picking the bottom leaves off of them since the plant will shed them anyway.
You could do the same on a bright windowsill or on a three seasons porch that gets some direct sun. Being a biennial they are very cool weather tolerant.
Have a great weekend my friend!
'til next time,
Your garden pal,