Great Mullein (New Jersey)
Improvement status: Wild
Seeds per packet: ~150
Germination tested 11/2021: 78%
Life cycle: Biennial
Mullein is a very well-known and highly interesting plant, naturalized in North America and around the world, with a long history of use by humans. Its many names are indicative of its value and its hold on the imagination of generations of foragers, herbalists, and others: besides "great mullein" and "common mullein," it has been or is known variously as "flannel plant," "poor man's blanket," "Bullocks lungwort," "Adams-rod," "hig candlewick," "velvet dock," "ice-leaf," "feltwort," "clot," "torches," and — most graphically — "cowboy toilet paper"! With its wide, distinctive, fuzzy leaves, mullein is a fixture in many landscapes. Many consider it a weed, but it is also increasingly planted intentionally. Recently it has experienced a renaissance among herbalists in this country, in particular for its purported ability to improve lung health. We use it for tea to relieve coughs and colds and as a sleep aid due to its mild sedative effect (always using a tea bag or fine muslin cloth, since the tiny fibers that make the plant fuzzy can be irritating to the throat), but many people actually smoke it for various lung ailments. Quite counterintuitively, smoked mullein was once said to "completely relieve the hacking cough of consumption [tubercolosis]," and some people still swear by smoking it for asthma and other lung problems. The plant is also used for skin conditions, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, migraines, earaches, colic, catarrh, and many other ailments. During the Civil War, it was used to staunch bleeding and dress wounds. It has antibacterial properties and was known as a destroyer of disease-agents for a long time (the 16th-century English herbalist Gerard wrote that figs wrapped in mullein leaves would not "putrefy").
Our seed was collected from a small patch of wild plants we've been encouraging to grow in a part of the field in Elmer filled mainly with perennials (its wide "basal rosette" of leaves during its first year helps prevent other weeds from establishing themselves). We like to pick and dry the leaves to give to our herbalist friends. Its cultivation may be restricted in parts of Colorado, Hawaii, and potentially other states as well, so please consult your local agricultural authorities about its status before purchasing.
Photo credit: Forest & Kim Starr