Mullein is a genus of roughly 250 species, the most popular of which is the verbascum thapsus, or common mullein plant. The common mullein is biennial, hardy and native to areas of northern Africa, Asia and Europe. During their first year of growth, mulleins are erect, but low-growing basal rosettes; as they mature they shoot up between 5 to 10 feet, and develop tall, thin, inconspicuous flower stalks. This plant’s foliage is made up of soft, felt-like leaves, which are a blue-gray hue, alternating, and large – often 5 inches in width, and 12 inches in length. The flowers of this plant are sparse but attractive, growing from small stems, they consist of five sturdy petals, and are generally seen in a bright shade of yellow.
Although the mullein plant is considered invasive in some areas, it is also quite welcome in others. This fact is not surprising, as mulleins are terrifically useful. Though the mullein plant began a much wider distribution around the 1700s, it had been known and used as a folk remedy as much as 2000 years ago. The ancient Greek physician Dioscorides suggested that this plant be used for pulmonary ailments; more than two millennia later, this still holds true. Because mulleins contain powerful expectorant agents, they are frequently made into teas, tinctures, and are even smoked and steamed to help clear the lungs of mucus; in addition to that, they are said to reduce inflammation by soothing mucous membranes. These plants are also thought to have potent astringent, antiseptic and antibacterial properties, and are frequently used to treat everything from urinary tract infections and stomach complaints, to swollen joints and sore throats. As well as having medicinal applications, the flowers of the mullein were once used as cloth and hair dyes, while the leaves and stems were commonly dried and made into wicks. The latter usage led to a bit of superstition, which stated that witches frequently used mullein wicks in their spells – generally to ward off wicked spirits and curses.
The mullein plant is often associated with protection; however, they are also said to be emblems of courage. As gifts, these plants are often given to show a desire for the recipient to remain strong in their endeavours, and ultimately succeed. Although they make for excellent potted plants, they may also be given as dried herbs that can be used as a fragrant substitute for incense.