Great Mullein

Verbascum thapsus

  • Name also: Common Mullein, Aaron’s Rod
  • Family: Figwort Family – Scrophulariaceae
  • Growing form: Biennial herb.
  • Height: 30–150 cm. (12–60 in.) Stem grey, felt-haired.
  • Flower: Corolla almost regular, 12–25 mm (0.48–1 in.) wide, yellow, fused, wheel-shaped, short-tubed, 5-lobed. Calyx 5-lobed, densely haired. Stamens 5, of which 2 long and 3 short; long stamen filaments often sparsely haired, with short, white hairs. Pistil a fused carpel. Inflorescence spike-like, usually unbranched.
  • Leaves: In basal rosette and alternate on stem. Basal leaves short-stalked, stem leaves decurrent. Blade elliptic–ovately elongated, blunt-tipped, both sides densely haired, with entire or shallowly toothed margin.
  • Fruit: Hairy, approx. 5 mm (0.2 in.) long, septicidal capsule.
  • Habitat: Meadows, dry meadows, slopes, rocky outcrops, roadsides, railway embankments, waste ground.
  • Flowering time: July–September.

In its first year great mullein grows a large, dense, woolly leaf rosette, and in its second year it develops its flowering stem and stretches upwards, reaching even the same height as a person. Each flower is itself only open for a couple of days, but the flowering stem as a whole can last for months. The dead stem stays erect throughout the next winter or two. The Finnish name for the plant comes from the fact that in olden days they would be covered in pitch or tar and used as torches, and this is also the basis of its majestic old name ‘candela regia’, meaning ‘king’s candle’. Mulleins were later used as lamp or candle wicks and burned as tinder. Attempts were also made to smoke mulleins in pipes – the leaves were used like tobacco, apparently to help treat a cough because the species have a strong reputation for being able to cure lung diseases. It seems to have been important in its day and was used as a versatile medicinal herb: many old Finnish names refer to its abundant beneficial properties; it was believed to be a highly potent medicine.
Mullein is often found around inhabited areas. Great mullein’s relative dark mullein (V. nigrum) has violet-haired stamens, its leaves do not extend decurrently along the stem, and the plant is in general dark green.

Common and Scientific Names

  • Great mullein, Aaron's rod, blanket weed
  • Verbascum thapsus Linnaeus
  • Family Scrophulariaceae (Foxglove and snapdragon family)

Origin and Distribution

Native to Europe and to western and central Asia, but now occurring in most temperate areas of the world. It was introduced to Australia as a garden plant and is also naturalised in Tasmania, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. It is widespread in Victoria, particularly in the Western District (mainly inland), central Victoria, the North East, Port Phillip and Westernport regions and East Gippsland.

Great mullein favours dry, well-drained sites, often in disturbed areas on hillsides. It is frequently found on shallow soils with low fertility and high pH, overlying rocks and on limestone soils, in areas with greater than 500 mm annual rainfall. Great mullein occurs on lands that were formerly cultivated, pastures, native grasslands, roadsides, railway easements, the margins of watercourses and in neglected areas.


Description and Lifecycle

  • Figure 1. Great mullein
  • Figure 2. Flowers of great mullein.

An erect biennial herb 0.5 to 2.5 m high, commonly 1 to 2 m, forming a basal rosette up to 60 cm in diameter in the first year and producing a single upright flowering stem in the second year.

Stems – single, erect, densely covered with woolly white hairs. Branches from the upper leaf axils are sometimes present.

Leaves – grey-green to whitish or yellowish, densely covered with matted layers of white star-shaped hairs giving a woolly appearance and prominently veined on the underside; lower leaves, 8 to 50 cm long, 2.5 to 14 cm wide, ovate to elliptical, with a short, winged stalk and a blunt pointed apex and forming a rosette close to the ground; stem leaves to 30 cm long, becoming smaller up the stem, stalkless, with a winged extension onto the stem.

Flowers – November to March; yellow, 15 to 30 mm in diameter, 12-18 mm long, densely arranged in groups of 2 to 7 on 1 to 5 mm long stalks in the axils of small bracts off the upright spike, and totalling up to several hundred per spike; 5 fused petals, 5 sepals, 5 stamens. The sepals are 6 to 12 mm long and the corolla (joined petals) is hairy on the outside. The upper 3 stamens have short, white, woolly filaments, the lower 2 have longer, hairless filaments. The lowest flowers on the stem mature first.

Fruit - an ovoid to globose, hairy capsule, 7 to 10 mm long, with a short stalk. Green when young, brown when dry, splitting into 2 valves when mature.

Seeds – up to 600 per capsule, reddish brown, pitted and ridged, less than 1 mm long, 5 or 6 sided, rod-shaped with one pointed end.

Roots – long, stout taproot. Great mullein is mainly a biennial but can become a short-lived perennial. Seeds germinate in spring and autumn and seedlings develop to form a large rosette by summer. Flowering mainly occurs from January to March. The flowers open in the early morning and close by mid-afternoon. They self-pollinate if cross-pollination does not occur. Plants die in autumn but the dry stems can remain standing for several months.

Similar speciesThere are three other Verbascum species in Victoria, all introduced. Verbascum virgatum, twiggy mullein, is less robust than great mullein, has leaves that are more elongate, are dark green, with scalloped margins and lack the dense covering of soft whitish hairs. The stalks of the flowers and seed pods are usually 2 to 5 mm long. It is a common weed in much of Victoria south of Echuca and Horsham. V. blattaria, moth mullein, also has green leaves that lack hairs or are sparsely hairy but has basal leaves that are lobed or toothed and flowers on stalks 10 to 25 mm long. It is locally common in the North East and uncommon in other parts of southern and eastern Victoria. Unlike the other three naturalised Verbascum species, V. creticum, Cretan mullein, has serrated bracts and sepals, and only 4 stamens, and is known from few widely scattered localities mainly in southern Victoria.

Properties

  • Figure 3. Rosette of great mullein.

Great mullein is suspected of being poisonous, but in pastures is rarely eaten by livestock. Seeds have long term viability and have been claimed to survive in soil for several hundred years.
Numerous medicinal properties have been attributed to the plant which has provided various traditional folk remedies and treatments. The petals and stamens are collected for use in medicine. The leaves have been used as lamp wicks, insoles for footwear and a source of mucilage for smoking. The flowers have provided a source of yellow dye.

Management

  • Figure 5. Exceptionally tall specimens of great mullein.

Prescribed measures for the control of noxious weeds

  • Application of a registered herbicide
  • Physical removal

Important information about prescribed measures for the control of noxious weeds.

Dispersal

The seeds have no special adaptation for dispersal but can contaminate a wide range of materials. They mainly fall within a short distance of the plant.

Other management techniques

Changes in land use practices and spread prevention may also support great mullein management after implementing the prescribed measures above.

  • Biological Control

No biological control agents are available or under development for this weed in Australia. The European weevil Gymnaetron tetrum, accidentally introduced to the USA, causes extensive seed destruction in some areas.

Some of our most unusual weeds have a colorful and interesting history.

This is the time of year when we start to see the bloom stalks of great mullein reach for the sky. This native of Europe and the Middle East goes from an insignificant rosette of grayish leaves to a spectacular plant that commands attention. In sunny, well-drained spots they steal the show over lesser weeds.

Great Mullein, Verbascum thapsus is a biennial herb/weed that grows almost anywhere, but seems to have an affinity for 'difficult' conditions. It appears just as happy growing out of a crack in sun-baked rocks or along a busy roadway as opposed to being a garden prima donna with a long list of cultural demands. This engineering marvel of the plant world has an unique leaf arrangement that makes use of all available water. The leaves form clasping channels along the stem that funnels water down toward the roots. The leaves are smaller toward the top of the plant, so any moisture not channeled to the center automatically drops on to the larger lower leaves and ultimately works its way toward the stem. The fuzzy leaves also assist the mullein in its quest for water since the hairs 'shade' the leaf and prevents excess evaporation. This is a common feature for many drought-tolerant plants.


Great mullein has been important as an herbal remedy for centuries and and it actually has measurable medicinal properties. Colonists brought it to the New World in the 1600's and it didn't take long for the native peoples to discover uses for it. Tea made from the leaves and flowers helped sooth respiratory ailments. It is an effective expectorant that helps coughs become more productive. It also has antiviral and anti inflammatory properties. An infusion made from steeping the leaves in oil has been an ear ache remedy for generations. All parts of the plant, including the roots have been used medicinally and it contains no poisonous compounds. The hairs on the leaves might cause a bit of irritation in some people, but the plant is fairly benign. Over the centuries various teas, salves, smoke and infusions have been prescribed for everything from insanity to hiccups.

The tall flower spikes were dipped in tallow and used as candlewicks and torches, while the dried leaves were carried by many peoples over the centuries as a perfect fire tinder. The yellow flowers make a beautiful yellow dye that also did double-duty as a blond hair rinse.


There is conflicting lore regarding these ready made torches, some legends say that witches preferred them to other material for their torches and other stories say that by burning them in your house, their charm will keep witches and evil spirits away away. The Romans believed that the leaves placed around the openings in a home would repel demons and it is said that Ulysses used it against Circe's magic potion (it was called 'moly' in the Odyssey) so he could rescue his crew who Circe had turned into pigs. Another folktale from the British Isles states that if you bend the flower stalk toward the home of your intended, you could tell if the lover was faithful. If the stalk returned to an upright position, your lover was true, if it stayed bent, then they were cheating.

Plant mullein in a well drained sunny area and give it room to spread. The first year, the rosettes will form. The second year, the flower stalks, then the plant dies. Don't worry, mullein makes thousands of seeds and it will cheerfully reseed for years, just remember to give it plenty of sun

Miscellaneous uses

There is little evidence to indicate that the plant can offer more than mild astringent and topical soothing effects. It may have mild demulcent properties when ingested. Mullein has expectorant and cough suppressant properties that make it useful for symptomatic treatment of sore throat and cough. Antiviral activity of mullein has been reported against herpes and influenza. Clinical research is lacking.

Mullein is a plant used to make medicine.

Some people take mullein by mouth for breathing conditions such as cough or asthma, pneumonia, colds, and sore throat. But there is limited scientific research to support these and other uses.
In manufacturing, mullein is used as a flavoring ingredient in alcoholic beverages.

Uses & Effectiveness?

Insufficient Evidence for

  • Ear infections (otitis media)
  • Wounds
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Colds
  • Flu
  • Asthma
  • Diarrhea
  • Migraines
  • Gout
  • Tuberculosis
  • Pneumonia
  • Croup
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Inflammation of the airways (bronchitis)
  • Other conditions

More evidence is needed to rate the effectiveness of mullein for these uses.

Side Effects & Safety

Mullein is POSSIBLY SAFE when applied directly to the ear, short-term. A specific product that contains mullein, garlic, calendula, and St. John’s wort has been used in the ear for up to 3 days.

Special Precautions & Warnings:

Children: Mullein is POSSIBLY SAFE when applied directly to the ear, short-term. A specific product that contains mullein, garlic, calendula, and St. John’s wort has been used in the ear for up to 3 days.

Pregnancy and breast-feeding: There is not enough reliable information about the safety of taking mullein if you are pregnant or breast-feeding. Stay on the safe side and avoid use.

Where it grows

In open scrub and hedge banks, on waysides, railway banks and sidings, rough grassy places, waste ground and quarries.

Best time to see

Flowers from June to September

Cultural info

In the Language of Flowers the mullein stands for health and good nature

How's it doing?

Continues to be common throughout the British Isles, except north-west Scotland.

3 things you might not know

  • Some North American Indian tribes used the woolly leaves as lining to insulate their moccasins against the cold – early settlers learnt of this practice and placed the leaves inside their stockings.
  • Its long bare stems were dried and dipped in tallow to make torches and lamp wicks.
  • Roman ladies dyed their hair a golden colour with an infusion of the flowers.

References

Barker, W.R. and Harden, G.J. (1999) Verbascum. Pp. 498-500 in N.G. Walsh and T.J. Entwisle (Eds.) Flora of Victoria Volume 4. Dicotyledons Cornaceae to Asteraceae. Melbourne, Inkata Press.
Parsons, W.T. and Cuthbertson, E.G. (1992) Noxious Weeds of Australia. Melbourne, Inkata Press.

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