Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Verbascum Thapsus, or Mullein, also known as Flannel Leaf, Aaron’s Rod, or yes, even Cowboy Toilet Paper. One of the most majestic and dramatic of all roadside wildflowers, mullein is instantly recognizable. It’s also one of the strongest herbal medicines around for anything to do with lung ailments, and one of the most useful plants for bushcrafting as well.
Mullein is yet another member of the large and diverse Aster family, which, as you know if you follow this blog, is the home of the majority of medicinal wildflowers in the Eastern Woodlands. Mullein is not a U.S. native, rather, it’s an old-world plant with a huge natural range from Spain and North Africa east to China and Siberia. It has since become naturalized in every temperate and subtropical area of the earth, from Australia to Argentina. So wherever your travels take you, there’s a good chance you’ll find mullein close at hand. In North America, it can be found in every U.S. state. It thrives in a broad range of habitats - I’ve seen it just as happy in the high deserts of Colorado as in the open longleaf pine woods of North Florida. It needs open ground, reasonably well-drained soil, a lot of sunlight, and that’s about it. I find it most often on roadsides, but it also shows itself in poorly-kept pastures, homestead sites, and open woods. The biggest patch I ever saw was along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia – miles after mile of tall, yellow-flowered mullein stalks swaying in the breeze.
Mullein is a biennial, meaning that in its first year of growth it presents as a flat rosette of leaves growing in a whorl on the ground. In its second year, it produces a huge, unbranching flower stalk two inches in diameter and up to ten feet tall. Mullein is unmistakable – it has no deadly or toxic mimics and every part of the plant is safe to use. Its most distinguishing characteristic, aside from that huge flower stalk, are its leaves. They are grayish-green and big, up to 18” long, with large, distinct veins and no serrations. What’s most noticeable, though, is their texture. They are thick, soft, and fuzzy, almost plush. They feel like a baby goat’s ear. Although the flower stalk is huge, the flowers themselves are tiny, yellow, and numerous. The flowering portion of the stalk is about 1’-2’ long.
Those leaves are where the primary value of mullein lies, as an edible plant, a medicinal, and as a bushcraft plant. Mullein is not an ideal edible, but it is safe to eat and nutritious. The biggest barrier to eating them is, of course, their texture. They’ll make almost anyone gag when eaten raw. They’re one of the few plants that even goats avoid. Cooking the leaves as a potherb overcomes most of this, but they’re still thick, and retain some of their hairy texture. If you’re going to do it, go for the smaller leaves. They have a better flavor, and the texture isn’t as pronounced.
But while mullein is a marginal edible, it’s a star as a medicinal plant. It’s been a mainstay in western herbal medicine for thousands of years. In Europe, it’s been used since time immemorial, and was quickly adopted by Native American tribes when it arrived with the first settlers. In Rome, Pliny the Elder mentions it in his Naturalis Historia as a way to ward off evil spirits and cure lung disease. Generations before that, the ancient Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides devoted considerable time to it in his five-part medical encyclopedia, De Materia Medica as a treatment for lung ailments such as asthma or bronchitis. And to this day, that’s where mullein shines the brightest. It’s arguably the best herbal cure there is for coughs, colds, fevers, bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, or croup. It calms inflamed bronchioles, expels mucus, reduces fevers, helps fight infections, and helps relax muscles tense from coughing. It’s also a great natural sedative… it’s a wonderful plant to use at the end of the day to help you relax before bed. Mullein also contains coumarins, a natural blood thinner that is the root chemical for many prescription blood pressure medications. As such, it’s useful as a natural treatment for high blood pressure, as a blood thinner like aspirin to treat heart conditions, and as an anti-inflammatory. The best way to get the medicinal benefits of mullein is an infusion made from the fresh or dried leaves. A few caveats, though: Due to the high levels of coumarins, check with your doctor before using mullein if you are on any prescription blood pressure medications or heart medications. Also, use only the smaller inner leaves from the flower stalk, or from the center of the rosette if it’s a first-year plant. Large leaves can have mild hallucinogenic properties and can cause vivid, intense nightmares.
Used externally, it’s good as a poultice for cuts, scrapes, bruises, stings, and the like. It has astringent, analgesic, and vulnerary properties, so it stops bleeding, reduces swelling of inflamed tissue, helps relieve pain, and promotes healing.
Mullein has a whole host of great uses for bushcrafters and other outdoorsmen, as well. Its most famous and obvious non-medicinal use is as, well, toilet paper. If you’ve ever felt a mullein leaf, it’s a pretty natural idea to use them for this purpose. I can attest to their effectiveness, although I still prefer large broadleaf plantain leaves if I can find them. But those same leaves are also great to put in your shoes as a layer of insulation and cushioning. Their thickness and fuzziness are almost akin to moleskin, and can be used in a pinch if you’re on a hike and feel a blister forming. You can use them to clean your hands, for the same reason they’re great for cleaning… other parts of your body. After frost, the dead plant has many other uses: the dried leaves and seed heads are highly flammable and make a great flash tinder. The seed head can dipped in oil or tallow and lit as a makeshift torch… fact, Roman soldiers used mullein torches to light their way on nighttime marches all over the Mediterranean. If you’re in a true wilderness survival scenario, mullein seeds (like Beautyberry last week) contain saponins, a fish-stunning toxin. Dump some crushed seeds upstream from a likely fishing hole, and be ready to collect the paralyzed fish when they float to the surface. Again, only use this one in a true survival situation. It doesn’t kill the fish, but it’s definitely still illegal and you’ll pay a serious fine if you get caught by the game warden. And finally, one of the most popular bushcraft uses of mullein is to use the dried stalk as a spindle for hand drill or bow drill friction fires. I haven’t personally done it, but I have been told that it’s among the top natural materials to use for this purpose.
So as you’re cruising the backroads this fall, keep an eye out for a huge, dramatic plant with big fuzzy leaves and a tall, yellow flower stalk. It’s mullein, and it’s one of the most useful plants you can know.
What about you? Do you have any uses for mullein that we missed? Have you ever used it as toilet paper? Tell us in the comments!