Mullein

    Ulysses was ever fortunate.  Mercury prepared him for the temptress Circe who had already turned his crew into swine.  Here is Homer's version (in the Mandelbaum translation):

    She'll mix a potion for you; she'll add drugs
    into that drink; but even with their force,
    she can't bewitch you; for the noble herb
    I'll give you now will baffle all her plots.

   It is widely believed that the "noble herb" Mercury served was mullein, a plant subsequently in colonial times carried from Europe to America.  Although it is occasionally adapted to gardens, most people consider it just a weed.

    To me common or great mullein (pronounced more simply just "mullen") is much more than that.  In late summer and early autumn it adds its distinct beauty to the more widespread goldenrods and asters.  It is that solitary plant that stands slender and tall -- four to six feet -- usually in barren fields or along roadsides.  Now it is nearly finished blooming, but it never sported more than a few delicate yellow flowers among the dozens of buds that circle its sentinel spike.  Soon the plant will die but the stalk will remain, brown but ever erect, through late fall and winter as it slowly gives up its tens of thousands of tiny seeds.  Although some of those seeds will sprout next year, others will lie dormant for up to a century waiting for the open unshaded conditions necessary to their growth.  That is why they appear, seemingly from nowhere, to grace -- or intrude upon -- newly cleared areas.

    Mullein is a biennial or occasionally a triennial.  The first year or two it grows only as a low rosette of spreading, soft green and velvety leaves.  In its final year it expends the energy it stored in its youth to send up its tall spike.  Most often single stemmed, a few large plants will support two to four vertical racemes.  Upper leaves hug the stem, thus leading water down toward the thirsty roots.

    There are over forty folk names for this plant.  Many come from its characteristics -- velvet-leaf, beggar's flannel and hare's beard from its leaves, shepherd's club and Jacob's staff from its stalk.  A more interesting name is Quaker's rouge.  Young women can redden their cheeks without the use of makeup, forbidden to Quakers, by brushing them with mullein leaves.  This is not a recommended practice as the skin is reacting to tiny barbed leaf hairs, the same hairs that deter cattle.  That is why you often see mulleins standing in otherwise closely cropped fields.  The leaves also served in colonial times as inner-soles to warm feet and as rubs for rheumatic joints, those hairs providing the soothing friction.  The hairs were also scraped off and dried to serve as tinder for fire starting.  Dead stems were dipped in wax and lighted as tapers and mullein flowers were used to make a blonde hair dye.

    The mullein pharmacopeia is extraordinary.  Euell Gibbons recommended a cough syrup concocted from mullein, red clover, white pine and the inner bark of wild cherry trees; earlier Native Americans smoked the dried leaves for the same purpose.  The litany of other ailments once treated includes burns, colic, diarrhea, earaches, gout, headaches, mumps, piles, ringworm, toothache and warts.

    Mullein tea --  a teaspoon of dried and powdered leaves in a cup of boiling water -- continues to serve as a cough and cold remedy or as a generic tonic.  If you consider preparing this tea, however, you should recall those irritating hairs.  The tea should be strained through fine gauze.

    Any country walk is enhanced by an encounter with this remarkable "weed".


References
Jones, Pamela. Just Weeds: History, Myths and Uses. Shelburne, Vermont: Chapters Publishing Ltd., 1994.

Sanders, Jack.  Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles: The Lives and Lore of North American Wildflowers. Camden, Maine: Ragged Mountain Press, 1993.
 

Spencer, Edwin Rollin.  All About Weeds.  New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1974. (First published as Just Weeds in 1957 by Charles Scribner's Sons).

Stokes, Donald and Lillian.  A Guide to Enjoying Wildflowers.  Boston, Massachusetts: Little Brown and Company, 1984.