I was working with that grand old master Mullein on this misty morning. It wasn’t hot and sunny enough to be harvesting any of the other twenty or so plants that I ‘needed’ to be harvesting, so I was a bit adrift, waiting to see what the weather was going to do, when the wise old Mullein called me over. It’s flower harvesting time. As I collected the waxy, yellow funnel shaped flowers, putting them directly into a jar with liquid coconut oil (which doesn’t go rancid), I could feel their medicine with each flower I picked. Mullein teaches us when we are picking his flowers. He demands that we are gentle but firm. Too gentle, you slip and tear the flower, too firm or fast, you crush it. But when you do it just right each little ear like yellow flower gently pops out, whole and satisfying, just like when our ear unplugs. Which is what this flower’s specific medicine is. With each flower I picked, I felt the spell of its medicinal purpose deepen. As I picked, thankfulness poured over me from the dozens of children and adults that will be helped, with severe earaches and lung problems, by the Mullein flowers.
Mr Mullein, as my daughter called him when she was two, is one of the most recognizable of all herbs, with his big hands and bright eyes. Standing tall and proud as a Masai warrior, he comes to land that has been burnt, plowed or torn, as a healer. He rightfully takes his place among the other healers and newcomers as a king. Height and authority walking hand in hand. In his steady gentle manner he does his work, spending a few years in one area and then, when his job is done and the growth around him thickens, he moves on. He is of a cool wet nature, as we see by his thick, almost succulent leaves. Yet, it is the fire of the sun within, shinning out as yellow flowers, that sustains him and gives him his medicine. Because of this inner fire, he cannot tolerate water. He never grows with even one tip of one root near standing water. And this year, even in his chosen, hot, dry home, l’ve seen him hanging his head in resignation with the endless rains. But a few sunny dry days will awaken him and he’ll be back up, standing tall once again. It is fitting that in centuries passed, for millennia, we found our way through the dark night with the help of dried Mullein stalks soaked with tallow to make a torch. The pithy inner stem acts as a perfect wick.
I’ve healed myself, family and friends many times with the help of this old one. He is almost everywhere for us when we need him. I’ve met Mullein all over North America, from the tree line in the far North to the mountains East and West to desert in the South. Though common, he is also extraordinary. He’s capable of bringing us back from death of consumption, back from pneumonia and influenza. To make the leaves into this cure, use a couple big handfuls of good quality dried leaf. They need to be simmered for many hours in 2 litres of water, in a clay or enamel pot with a lid. When this is a thick black decoction, strain out the spent Mullein leaves. Keep 2 litres in fridge. Drink one cup of this a day, 1/4 cup every four hours. This is about a week’s worth of medicine. In the worst cases you may need to take this remedy for a few months, but usually one or two weeks is enough.
This tall one is also an ally in treating many chronic illnesses such as; bronchitis and asthma. Mullein clears cool moist conditions by drawing off the water, like the fur on his leaves, or the cilia in our lungs. Yet, he can also deal with hot dry conditions, as is evidenced by his growing in the hottest, driest places. He handles the heat with his cool demulcent qualities. Any combination of these cool wet or hot dry conditions, relating to our mucus membranes, can be treated by Mullein. The effectiveness of Mullein topically as a poultice, for ‘hot’ skin conditions, ulcer’s and hemorrhoids, is also a testimony to the plant’s cool, soothing and healing nature. It’s funny that we’ve also known mullein and kept him near as a gentle toilet paper over the ages.
Mullein’s medicine is gentle but strong, as the way he grows on the land. He is not ‘invasive’ but arrives when needed. Mullein is among the first one on the scene as a healer on the land, as the lungs are among the first organs to be effected by, and express illness in our body. As well as his leaf medicine Mullein has extremely powerful flower medicine. I have had several cases where a combination of Mullein leaf and flower has miraculously rebuilt severely damaged lungs (caused by fire and exposure to burning chemicals), when there was no medical treatment. Mullein leaf can also be used as smoke or steam. This way the medicine can get directly into the lungs and blood stream, acting as bronchial relaxant and dilator. Because Mullein also strengthens and rebuilds lung tissue, he can help with most conditions relating to shortness of breath.
Mullein’s strong, flexible, hollow bone-like stalks, with fascia-like leaf brackets, signifies his use in degenerative bone disease. The size, shape and texture of the leaves, as well as his yellow flowers, signify Mullein’s connection to the lungs and the kidneys, which (in Chinese medicine) is related to bone formation and core strength. If we watch Mullein grow, we see he can absorb mineral nutrients from the ground in remarkable ways, growing in just sand or gravel. And miraculously, while growing in exhausted areas, he is one of the most nutritious plants in the northern hemisphere. But alas, Mullein is inedible due to his wooly leaf covering which messes up animal and insect digestive tracks. The remedy to this dilemma is tea. As with many plants which we can’t eat directly, we can access these highly available nutrients when we drink the herb as tea. Specifically with Mullein, as an infusion, we can share in his demulcent nature and his ability to absorb minerals. Mullein tea can be made from fresh or dried leaves.
When it comes to harvest time, Mullein is more generous than most, having a very long and open ‘harvest window’. But there is always a best time and place to harvest medicinal plants. Ideally, I harvest the leaves on a full moon in late summer when we’re having our first cold nights, but the days are still sunny and hot. I harvest from first year plants, or early second year plants before they start to shoot up. While this is ideal, with Mullein the quality of the herb will be workable as long as the plants are healthy. They can be harvested any time, all season from spring up to flowering. If it is for serious conditions and you need the best quality (not for smoking or tea), then Mullein should be harvested from areas where the soil isn’t too rich. From where the plants have had to work. Also keep in mind, road sides and other industrial areas that have been cleared, where he has chosen to grow, might not be safe for harvesting because the purifying nature of Mullein draws in contaminates from the land. Another way that Mullein is generous and flexible besides his abundant big leaves and long harvest window, is that with most plants, their aerial parts need to be harvested in the morning and in the sun, but Mullein can be harvested on a cloudy day or even in rain and still be effective!
When you harvest, as always, make your offerings first to the Grandmother and Grandfather plants. If you don’t feel which ones they are, pick the biggest ones, usually uphill. Then, don’t touch these ones. Taking the leaves from their younger siblings and children. You may take all but the inner core of leaves (down to 3” leaf length), or if there is a big family of plants, just take a few of the mid-sized leaves from each plant. Don’t worry about leaves that have been a bit eaten, sometimes they have even more medicine. It makes little difference to Mullein how much leaf you take. His roots run deep and he draws and holds his power in his core and will keep growing and flowering so long as his stem is not broken. As a biannual, in the second year, Mullein generally yields a staff like, or “devils fork”, flowering structure the hight of a adult human, with little greenish yellow flowers that popcorn open randomly, a few each day, slowly moving up with the flowerhead’s towering growth. The seeds are poisonous to humans. But, it’s interesting that they were utilized traditionally to paralyze fish for easy harvest. From this I imagine the seeds to be paralytic to the autonomic nervous system of the fish, but made with chemicals that are water soluble and dissipate over time or when they’re cooked, so it doesn’t effect those consuming it.
While Mullein is lenient in how he is harvested, drying and storage of the leaves are not so easy. Total darkness and coolness is what’s necessary or the leaves will lose most of their potency within a couple of months. Once, while travelling around North America doing health food shows with the Algonquin Tea Company (some with 70,000 people) I contracted influenza. I had no lung medicine with me and we were right in Downtown Vancouver. It was very early spring, so there was no mullein to harvest. In desperation, rather than going to the hospital, I went to a strip of health food stores searching for dried Mullein. Every store had it, but it was either ground up and pelletized in little bags, or bulk “cut and sifted” in clear jars or bins exposed to light and room temperature. The herbs I saw were almost completely dead; terrible quality. I had a deep connection with Mullein and at that point I didn’t know any other herb that could help me. So, banking on the little glimmer of life I still saw in the pale herbs, I bought a pound of the stuff. I cooked in down in two rounds, drank as much as I could and soaked my shirt in the decoction before going to bed so it could be absorbed through my skin during my ‘sweats’. It worked, but I needed ten times what I would have, had it been herbs that were stored well.
I hope you all find his medicine in your life and consider him well the next time you see Mr Mullein.