The useful, golden weed of mullein: Home Medicine Cycle 18

Upper stalk of great mullein - Creative Commons image by Ian Cunliffe

Upper stalk of great mullein - Creative Commons image by Ian Cunliffe

Where I grew up in the mountains of Northeastern Oregon every child knew about mullein. It was one of the first plants we learned to identify for a very good reason. If you were out in the woods and needed to "go number two," mullein was your best friend. 

Even the name is soft, comforting and humble. Mullein sounds like something warm and gentle. It often grows in weedy, forgotten places, but it offers practical uses far beyond providing natural toilet paper. 

Mullein is a striking plant. It grows for two years. The first year you see only the soft, gray-green leaves covered with tiny hairs. The second year a thick pithy stalk shoots up from the middle and bright yellow flowers pop out of it through July and August. Both the leaves and the flowers are medicinally helpful.

The leaves contain compounds that help to sooth and tighten tissue. This leads to several excellent uses for mullein leaf teas and tinctures:  

  • To alleviate coughs and other respiratory complains where there is irritation or bleeding of in the lungs and respiratory passages. (Some people dry the leaves and smoke them to alleviate particularly irritating coughs but tea or tincture is also helpful.)
  • To sooth irritated stomachs or bowels. 
  • For adding to soothing and cleansing salves. 
Mullein plants - Creative Commons image by Lairich Rig

Mullein plants - Creative Commons image by Lairich Rig

Mullein flowers are often mixed in with the prickly hairs of the plant stalk and must be well strained to be as soothing as the leaves. However, the flowers are possibly more anti-bacterial than the leaves. Historically people wrapped food in mullein leaves to keep it from spoiling and modern science has born this out with findings about the anti-bacterial properties of the leaves and the flowers. 

One of the most important uses of mullein flowers is in an infused oil that is extraordinarily effective in treating ear infections. The compounds of mullein flowers have the wonderful combination of simultaneously killing bacteria, reducing pain and soothing the tissues inside the ear. In many countries mullein oil is sold as a regular remedy for ear infections and in Isreal a controlled study found that a combination of mullein, garlic, calendula and St. John's Wart oils had a marked effect in treating ear infections. Some scientific articles argue that herbal preparations like this are as effective or more effective than antibiotics for ear infections today, not to mention safer.

It's handy that this oil is not at all difficult to make at home. Use the first half of my salve recipe, which results in infused olive oil (you can infuse mullein only as I do or try the Israeli combination of mullein, calendula and St. John's Wart. The garlic will be added later). 

Once you have infused mullein oil keep it in the refrigerator in a small bottle. Then when an earache strikes, crush a clove of fresh garlic and mix it with a tablespoon of the mullein oil. Let it sit for a half an hour. Then strain the pieces of garlic out. Put the oil in a glass and place the glass in a little warm water to slightly heat the it to about body temperature. This is a powerful antibiotic and painkilling concoction that you can pour into a painfully infected ear for nearly immediate relief. It makes you smell a bit like a pizza parlor, but since I discovered this my children have never had to have another dose of antibiotics for ear infections again.

I love your comments on these posts. What are your experiences with herbs this summer? What plants made an impression on you as a child, even if a silly one? Write using the icon on the lower left.