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A great healer for the respiratory system

Mullein

Verbascum thapsus L Scrophulariaceae

Mullein is a wonderfully soothing remedy for the lungs, used to good effect in irritating, hacking coughs with bronchial congestion.

Sustainability status

Not currently on risk lists but complete data may be missing on the status of the species. Commonly cultivated though may be sourced from the wild. Only source cultivated supplies or from certified sustainable wild collection. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Sustainability Status
Key benefits
  • Anti-catarrhal
  • Demulcent
  • Expectorant
  • Vulnerary (tissue healing)
  • How does it feel?

    Soft, velveteen leaves, like rabbit’s ears to the touch, mullein has a soothing action known as a demulcent activity, this word is derived from the Latin demulcere, to caress. The fresh or dried leaves have little odour, the taste is mucilaginous and slightly bitter.

    The scent of the 1:3 infused tincture is mildly aromatic. On tasting, initially it is warmly sweet and aromatic with a follow-on soothing demulcent sensation.

  • What can I use it for?

    Used widely in the form of a tincture or a tea for its antimicrobial, expectorant and demulcent effects, mullein is very well-placed for use in inflammatory conditions of the respiratory tract such as infections, asthma, tracheitis and spasmodic coughs, and is indicated where the lining of the respiratory tract feels sore, inflamed and dry.

    When taken internally it has a slightly diaphoretic effect, (promoting perspiration). It would thus make a good accompaniment to elderflowers and/or lime flowers in the treatment of fevers involving respiratory infections.

    The infused oil made from the flowers can be used for earache, (see cautions under safety), mouth ulcers, and for burns.

    The leaves are used topically in the form of a poultice for wounds and burns.

  • Into the heart of Mullein

    The leaf has been widely used in the form of an infusion or a tincture for its soothing properties on inflamed, dry and painful throat and chest complaints. Easing breathing and dry, hacking coughs.

    Mullein can soothe mucous membranes, reduce inflammation and promote expectoration. It has been used in conditions such as bronchitis, whooping cough, tracheitis, TB and asthma to good effect.

    The saponins within both the leaf and flower possess the expectorant action which when coupled with the plant’s soothing effects from the mucopolysaccarides means it really helps to bring up hard-to-shift phlegm and soothe irritated mucous membranes.

  • Traditional uses

    The name Mullein is derived from the Latin word mollis, meaning soft or woolly.

    Primarily the leaf and flower have been used medicinally and its use has been wide-spread including in Europe, North America, India and Pakistan.

    Uses are both internal, (mainly for conditions of the respiratory system) and also external, as a soothing vulnerary (healer) for burns, wounds and bruises.

    The infused oil of the petals is used in earache and also on haemorrhoids and other mucous membrane inflammations.

    In the past the leaves were dried and smoked for relief in asthma and coughing spasms.

    Right up until the introduction of antimycobacterial drugs, mullein was cultivated on a large scale in Ireland and sold in chemists as an important remedy in the treatment of tuberculosis (4).

  • Traditional actions

  • What practitioners say

    Lower respiratory system: It is an excellent dual-purpose respiratory remedy, on the one hand containing large quantities of mucilage and thus exerting a soothing and mucus-producing effect suitable for irritated airways, whilst on the other containing saponins that are responsible for the stimulatory effect on the mucociliary lining of the respiratory system.

    Ears:  It has been used in the form of an infused oil of the flowers when applied as drops to the ear for earache and inflamed external areas of the ear canal as with eczema. The infused oil is sometimes combined with garlic for added antimicrobial activity. Used for otitis externa or otitis media.

    Mouth: The oil made from leaf or flower is also used to good effect in mouth ulcers being that it is healing and antiseptic.

    Skin: Ointments prepared from leaves are used for burns (Haughton, 1978). Topically, a poultice of the leaves and/or flowers is a good healer of wounds and is also beneficial when applied to haemorrhoids (5).

  • Research

    Tough as old boots, mycobacteria have been intensively studied to find their Achilles’ heel, in particular M.tuberculosis which causes TB. Due to increasing antibiotic resistance, (extensively drug-resistant TB has been reported in 123 countries worldwide (6)), the search for effective treatments is ongoing and plants are playing a significant role in this.

    Mullein has a long tradition of use for TB and other diseases arising from infection with mycobacterium species including leprosy and bovine TB and has been investigated in recent times to see if this can be evidenced (7).

    Antimicrobial effects have been observed in vitro against Klebsiella pneumonia, Staphylococcus aureus, Staphylococcus epidermidis and Escherichia coli (8).

    The iridoid glycosides within Mullein have been investigated for antiproliferative and antiangiogenic activity. Luteolin and 3-O-fucopyranosylsaikogenin F showed promising antiproliferative action by way of inducing cell apoptosis of A549 lung cancer cells (9).

    Aqueous and ethanolic extracts of whole plant Mullein have demonstrated antioxidant activity. The antioxidant activity of alcoholic stem extract was investigated using DPPH (antioxidant) assay. Ethanolic extract of the plant resulted up to 85% inhibition of free radical and up to 40% inhibition by water extract (10). Currently no studies have been carried out on the isolated compounds of mullein for antioxidant effects.

    Trials have shown a statistically significant improvement in the symptoms of ear ache in otitis media in children when treated with a blended oil containing garlic, St John’s wort, calendula, lavender, vitamin E and mullein that was comparable to anaesthetic ear drops. The herbs within have combined anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and pain-relieving effects (11).

  • Did you know?

    Mullein was considered a magical plant and used in love potions and other such brews, being mentioned in incantations during the Middle Ages.

    The flowering stems were dipped in tallow and used as torches by the Greeks and Romans.

    The seeds are narcotic to fish. They have been used by poachers, thrown into the water where they have helped to make catching the fish easier. It should be noted that this not an acceptable practice and is illegal in many countries. 

    The velvety leaves were put into shoes to act an insulation from the cold, they also have a long tradition of use as a substitute for loo roll, known in the US as ‘cowboy toilet paper’.

Additional information

  • Botanical description

    Towering spikes of flowers sit on a single stem that grows from the centre of a basal rosette of leaves on this handsome biennial plant. The flower stems can reach a height of 2 metres with leaves that narrow at their base forming two wings that run down the stem. Native to Europe, North Africa and western and central Asia, it has naturalised in most temperate areas of the world.  It is vigorous in growth and each plant can produce upwards of 100,000 seeds (1), so if you grow it, ignore at your peril!

    The seeds also possess impressive longevity, viable seeds have been found in soil samples dated 1300 AD (1).

    The leaves are incredibly soft and velvety in texture. Many ornamentals have been bred from verbascum species. The flowers are a lovely egg yolk-yellow and often bloom rather randomly, dotted about here and there on the tall spikes of the rather charming and sometimes wonky mullein. 

    Nowadays it is the leaves and flowers which are used as medicine.

  • Common names

    • Mullein
    • Woolley or Great mullein
    • Velvet dock
    • Candlewick plant
    • Feltwort
    • Hag’s taper
    • Old Man’s Flannel
    • Fluffweed
  • Safety

    Mullein leaf and flowers have an excellent safety profile with no reported interactions or contraindications.

    The oil of the flowers should not be used an alternative to seeking professional medical help if there is a suspicion of an inner ear infection (otitis interna)

    The seeds are considered by some sources to be toxic and by others as a digestive irritant. Either way they should be avoided.

  • Dosage

    If taking mullein leaf in tea form, strain it well to ensure removal of any potentially irritating leaf hairs that may be floating about in the infusion.

    12 – 24g per day of the dried leaf by infusion

    2-5 ml per day of a 1:3 strength tincture

  • Constituents

    • Iridoid glycosides including aucubin, verbacoside, harpagoside,  laterioside, ajugol
    • Flavonoids including luteolin, kaempferol, quercetin, cynaroside
    • Saponins various  thapsuins in the flowers and leaf
    • Polysaccharides(2,3)
Mullein
  • Recipe

    Mullein flower and garlic ear oil

    Ingredients:

    • 1 standard cup of freshly picked mullein flowers
    • A whole head of garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
    • Olive oil, approximately 2 cups
    • ÂŒ teaspoon of vitamin E oil (optional, will prolong the oil’s shelf-life)
    • A sterilised jam jar

    Makes between 200-250ml oil

    Method:

    • Check the flowers, removing any bugs and gently press into to the jar along with the chopped garlic. Add the olive oil until the garlic and flowers are covered. Give it a quick stir to remove any air bubbles. Cover and sit on a sunny window sill for a couple of weeks. Alternatively you can use a slow-cooker on the lowest setting and pop it on for 12 hours and leave in the pot while it slowly cools.
    • Strain it through a sieve lined with muslin so it is well-filtered and pour into dark glass dropper bottles labelled and marked with the date made. If kept in a cool dark place this soothing antiseptic ear oil will keep for a good year.

    Use 3-5 drops of the warmed oil into the affected ear and if not too tender, gently massage the surrounding area. Pop a wad of cotton wool into the entrance and ask the person to remain lying with the affected ear upwards for a few minutes. Keep the area warm with a heated wheat bag or a covered hot water bottle for increased comfort.

    This remedy can be used every 2 hours if needed.

    Please note: The flower oil should not be used as an alternative to seeking professional medical help if there is a suspicion of an inner ear infection (otitis interna), a high temperature, discharge from the ear or if there is no improvement in symptoms including pain after 3 days.

  • References

    1. Gross KL; Werner PL. (1982): Colonizing abilities of “biennial” plant species in relation to ground cover: implications for their distributions in a successional sere. Ecology, 63(4):921-931
    2. Panchal, M etc al. (2010): Pharmacological properties of Verbascum thapsus – a Review. Dept of Pharmacology. Vol 5, (2) Article 015
    3. Riaz, M et al. (2013): Common Mullein, pharmacological and chemical aspects. Brazilian journal of Pharmacognosy. 23: 948-959
    4. Allen DE, Hatfield G. (2004): Medicinal plants in folk tradition. Cambridge, UK: Timber Press. 250-251
    5. Haughton, C.S., (1978): Green immigrants. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York, USA
    6. https://www.who.int/tb/areas-of-work/drug-resistant-tb/global-situation/en/. Accessed 25.3.21
    7. Mc Carthy, E and O’Mahony, J. (2011): What’s in a name? Can Mullein weed beat TB where modern drugs are failing? Evidence-based Complementary Alternative medicine. Article ID: 239237 
    8. Turkar, A, Camper N. (2002): Biological activity of common mullein, a medicinal plant. J Ethnopharmacol. 82(203): 117-25 
    9. Zhao, Yan-Li etc al. (2011): Isolation of Chemical Constituents from the Aerial Parts of Verbascum thapsus and Their Antiangiogenic and Antiproliferative Activities. Archives of Pharm Res vol 34(5):703-7
    10. Kumar, G, Singh, SB. (2011): Antibacterial and antioxidant activities of ethanol extracts from trans Himalayan medicinal plants. European Journal of applied sciences 3 (2): 53-57
    11. Sarrell, E M et al. (2001): Efficacy of naturopathic extracts in the management of ear pain associated with acute otitis media. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 155 (7): 796-9 
    12. Willheim, GJR. (1974): The Mullein: Plant piscicide of the mountain folk culture. Georgrap Rev 64: 235-252
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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