Country & Garden: Herbs No 1: Mullein

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
YOU CAN use it as a shampoo, stun fish with it or wear it as underwear. In the first of a new series on herbs and their properties, Miranda Seymour marvels at the rich history of `Verbascum thapsus'

IT'S HARD to think of a plant which has so many, and such odd, alternative names as the beautiful mullein, with its furry rosettes of leaves and brilliant yellow flowers. Mrs Grieve's Herbal lists 31 synonyms. Here are some of the most striking: Adam's flannel; shepherd's staff; beggar's blanket; rag paper; candlewick plant; hag's taper. And, last and unloveliest: duffle, and clot.

Let's not pretend that the mullein is an endangered species. Its proud spikes have been seen flourishing in the Himalayas, Ireland, and wherever there's a piece of chalky wasteland awaiting development. Mullein is a plant that is good at taking care of itself; those soft furry leaves, anathema to animals and insects in search of a meal, also help to keep in the moisture.

"Candlewick plant" gives a clue to one of mullein's early uses, as a wick for lamps before cotton was used. Dipped in tallow, the stalks were used as torches; I've seen children carry them in the Greek Good Friday processions. The ashes sometimes turn up in medieval receipts as suitable for a (very basic) shampoo; the bright yellow flowers were popular with Renaissance ladies who used them to dye their hair blond.

Poacher fishermen sprinkled mullein's narcotic seeds on the water to lull their prey to sleep. Shepherds and wanderers gathered the furry leaves and put them in their shoes as thermal protection. You can use mullein leaves as a dry flannel; and anyone caught short beside a mullein-decked roadside may have discovered that the leaves are also nature's answer to Andrex.

The 16th-century herbalist John Gerard gathered his mullein supplies on Highgate Hill in the days when lilies grew wild on Hampstead Heath. Mullein, Gerard wrote, took its name from malandres, a compliment to its power to cure diseases of the lungs. (It was still being grown in Irish gardens as a natural cure for consumption until the beginning of this century.) But mullein also had a reputation for magical properties; Ulysses used it to prevent Circe from laying her spell on him. Gerard, although a little sceptical, passed on the news that a young mullein stalk, carried in the pocket, offered protection against the "falling sickness", especially if picked when the sun was in Virgo and the moon in Aries. But this, he added, was "vaine and superstitious".

Piles, warts, earache, toothache, diarrhoea; there is almost nothing for which mullein has not at some time been recommended. If you do want to boil the flowers and leaves up for a medicinal tisane, use a very fine strainer; the tiny hairs on the leaves get everywhere, and tickle mercilessly. Handsome, easy to grow and ugly only when its leaves wither to tobacco- brown rags, mullein does have one disadvantage. As nectar to the bee, so mullein is to the slug...