Modern civilized humans generally ignore plants although we still ultimately depend upon them for food, fuel, medicine and shelter. We would not even exist without the preceding food chain of carbohydrates that algae, plankton and plants produce. Some plants are more useful to humanity than others. Weeds, by definition are uncultivated or undesired plants. Yet sometimes even weeds can provide us with important services. Out of a multitude of possible choices, one un-assuming and often solitary weed is selected for an example in this discussion. The seeds of the common mullein weed have been deliberately broadcast by humans to the far corners of the globe and it lives in all temperate climates. This plant is classified as a noxious weed in Colorado & Hawaii, USA and in the Australian state of Victoria. There was a time in the not too distant past however when this weed’s beneficial properties far outweighed its negative ones.
The common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) has a host of common folk names including: Aaron’s rod, Beggar’s blanket, Blanket herb, Bullocks lungwort, Candlewick, Clown’s lungwort, Cowboy toilet paper, Devil’s-tobacco, Duffle, Feltwort, Flannel Weed, Fluffweed, Great mullein, Goosegrass, Hag’s taper, Hare’s or Rabbit’s beard, Ice leaf, Indian Tobacco, Jacob’s staff, Lamb’s ear, Lamb’s-Tongue, Miner’s candle, Quaker rouge, Rag paper, Torchwort and Velvet dock. For any plant let alone a weed to have so many names there must be good reason.
This distinctive and often singular plant which has soft fuzzy hair on its leaves was introduced to the N. American continent about 250 years ago by European colonist. It was not long before some Native American Indian tribes started smoking it for its medicinal properties. The common mullein soon made its way across the continent; being identified in California by 1876. The biennial (two year life span) mullein is not invasively competitive with other plants. It is selective about its habitat and its seeds do not broadcast well without assistance. The mullein needs sunlight to flourish and favors bare patches of broken ground to grow. Patches of “Jacob’s staff” weed may spring up after forest fires, where for a short time these may flourish because they don’t need to compete with other plants for sunlight. The seeds of the Verbascum thapsus are very hardy, capable of remaining dormant in the soil for over a century before they sprout! This weed does provide ‘overwintering’ shelter for beneficial and not so beneficial insects as well and it occasionally host parasitic fungi and plant diseases.
* For many years a professor of Michigan Agricultural College – William Beal (1833-1924) (who was otherwise famous for hybridizing corn) buried the seeds of weeds and other plants in sand filled glass jars. After one of his jars was opened and the seeds encouraged to germinate 125 years later, the common mullein seeds proved to be quite fertile.
Some 2,000 odd years ago the Greeks and Romans were probably dipping the end of the dried mullein stalk (the raceme) into tallow (rendered animal fat) to make torches. Underground miners often used these “Torchwort” torches to provide light. Supposedly satanic cults and witches used these mullein torches also – giving rise to names like “Hag’s taper”. Before the discovery of cotton, parts of the “Candlewick” (mullein) plant were commonly used for candle or lamp wicks. * Candle wicks must convey the fuel to the flame by capillary action. Modern cotton candle wicks are usually soaked in a fire retardant ‘mordant‘ like borax or salt to keep them from being quickly destroyed by flame. Cotton candlewicks are often ‘flat braided’ so that they curl back into the flame; consuming the excess wick in a self regulating fashion.
Since ancient times the common mullein has been used as a remedy for skin, throat and breathing ailments. The great mullein (there are several related, lesser species of mullein) was understood to have valuable properties as an astringent, an emollient and as an analgesic. A topically applied astringent shrinks or constricts body tissues. Oral astringency is a dry, puckering mouth-feel usually caused by tannins in certain foods. Astringents can help sore throats, peptic ulcers, diarrhea and internal hemorrhages because they tend to shrink or check the discharge of blood plasma (serum) or mucous secretions. Emollients in cosmetics serve to make the skin’s epidermis softer and more pliable and are ingredients in normal or therapeutic commercial skin moisturizers. An analgesic is a painkiller, anesthetic or anodyne.
The Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (40 – 90 AD) recommended mullein for diseases of the lung. In the Middle Ages monks used Verbascum thapsus to treat coughs and congestion in humans and livestock. The name “Bullocks lungwort” reflects that mullein was used to treat cattle with coughs and pneumonia. For people with coughs, colds, asthma, pneumonia, tuberculosis or other pulmonary (respiratory) problems, a tea from the flowers and leaves was generally consumed. The tea had to be strained or filtered through a cloth to remove the otherwise irritating fuzzy hairs. The astringent properties of the tea were also thought to alleviate hemorrhoids and diarrhea. After tobacco pipes became fairly commonplace, the dried leaves of the common mullein were sometimes smoked to lessen the ‘cough of consumption’ (tuberculosis). Native American Indians in the north east sometimes smoked mullein to help alleviate lung mucous or bronchial congestion. At one time mullein leaf cigarettes could be found in most pharmacies.
Roman women used the flowers from the Verbascum thapsus to dye their hair a golden yellow. For two millennium fabrics like wool have been tinted by the same method. Denied the use of cosmetics in colonial America, Quaker women sometimes rubbed the hairy leaves on their cheeks to give the effect of wearing rouge. This caused a mild allergic reaction or contact dermatitis. The reddish or pink cheek color made women more alluring.
Used as an analgesic (painkiller), oil from the flowers was used to treat ear infections and earaches. Taken internally, mullein was used to treat toothache, migraine headaches, cramps, and colic (abdominal pain). External poultices of mullein were used to treat chapped lips, sunburn and chilblains (perniosis or damages to the capillaries in the skin caused by exposure to cold temperatures). While studies of this plant are incomplete there is evidence to suggest that it may poses antiseptic and antiviral properties. Its chemical compounds may yet become useful in certain herpes and influenza treatments.
The common mullein contains mucilage (a gluey, gelatinous slime) and several interesting chemical compounds including coumarin, glycosides, saponins and rotenone. Coumarin is the fragrant organic chemical compound sometimes found in plants and extracted from them. A glycoside is a molecule (sometimes a troublesome molecule) attached or bonded to a sugar molecule. Saponins are amphipathic glycosides (chemical compounds with both water loving and fat loving properties). Saponins are surfactants and foaming agents, similar to soaps and detergents. Soap acts as a surfactant by lowering water’s surface tension, allowing oils to be dispersed in water and then be rinsed away. Most saponins easily dissolve in water and are poisonous to fish. Herein lays another good reason for colonist and pioneers to bring the seeds of the great mullein with them to new lands. Two or three centuries ago colonist had few means to preserve food and they may have frequently been just a small step ahead of starvation. The ability to toss a “Fluffweed” plant into a pond or pool of water to stun fish long enough to grab them might have proven to be very useful.
* Fish can be very fickle and hard to get even with today’s plethora of modern fishing paraphernalia.
There is a surprising number of successful piscicides (icthyotoxins or fish poisons) in the plant world. There are three general categories of plant derived fish poisons; alkaloids, rotenones and saponins. To be effective these fish toxins need to stun or stupefy the fish long enough for it to be caught, and then pose no threat when eaten by the humans. That’s where alkaloid piscicides might fall short. Rotenones interfere with the fish’s (or other cold blooded animal’s) respiratory process. Saponins are generally less lethal to fish than rotenones – both effectively deoxygenate the water. The common mullein has both saponins in its stalk, leaves and raceme and rotenone in its seeds. Apparently even Aristotle knew that fish were easier to catch after eating common mullein seeds.
One should admire this ‘weed’ for the many services it once provided. It has been used as fire tender, as a flashlight, as a candle wick, as a hair and textile dye, as toilet paper, as a cosmetic and emollient, as an internal and external astringent, as an analgesic and as a fishing tool in times of need. Leaves of “Rabbit’s beard” or “Lamb’s ear” were also sometimes placed inside shoes for cushioning or for warmth. Its fuzzy and pliable green leaves were even occasionally used as a wrap to protect food – as plastic baggies or cellophane are used today.
* Link to a site with good (but copyrighted) images of the common or great mullein. http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/common_mullein.htm