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12 Interesting Facts About Verbascum

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Introduction

Verbascum, commonly known as mullein, is a genus of over 360 flowering plant species in the figwort family Scrophulariaceae. These hardy biennials and perennials are native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa, but some species have become widely naturalized around the world.

Verbascum plants have a long history of uses, from ancient medicinal remedies to the more modern development of dyes and wicks. Read on to learn 12 fascinating facts about these versatile plants.

Gordolobo * Verbascum
Gordolobo * Verbascum by jacilluch is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 .

1. Mullein leaves were used medicinally going back to ancient times

Mullein leaves are covered with fuzzy hairs, giving them a soft, velvety texture. These leaves have been used since ancient Greek and Roman times to treat coughs and respiratory congestion. Science has shown the leaves contain saponins that help expel mucus and relax the airways.

2. The flower stalks were dipped in tallow or wax to make torch wicks

In medieval times, people quickly realized that verbascum’s tall, rod-like flower stalks were perfect for candle and torch wicks. The dry pithy stems burn slowly and evenly for a long time. Verbascum stalks dipped in tallow or wax were the torch wicks of choice going back centuries.

3. Some species can grow over 12 feet tall

While most mullein varieties grow 2 to 6 feet tall, some species like great mullein (Verbascum thapsus) can tower at 12 feet high when they bloom! These imposing plants can grow as singular columns or in dense stands along roadsides. Their height allows windborne seeds to disperse long distances.

4. The common name “mullein” comes from the Latin word for soft

The Latin word “mollis” means soft or flexible. This root connects to the common name mullein through the Old French “moleyne” and Middle English “moleyne.” One touch of the fuzzy mullein leaves quickly reveals how this plant got its soft and supple moniker.

5. Mullein flowers were used to add yellow dye to cheese or fabric

Verbascum flowers contain the carotenoid lutein, giving them a bright yellow color. In some rural European areas, mullein flowers were used to add vibrant yellow pigments to cheeses like Schabzieger. The flowers can also infuse a sunny yellow dye into wool or fabric.

6. Roman soldiers dipped mullein stalks in suet to use as torches

The straight, rigid flower stalks of great mullein were ideal for Roman soldiers to dip in rendered animal fat and burn as torches. These improvised torches illuminated dark nighttime maneuvers while keeping soldier’s hands free to carry weapons. The torches burned slowly and brightly thanks to Mullein’s woody stem.

7. Some species spread rapidly as aggressive weeds

A few Verbascum species like great mullein have spread prolifically around the world. Their lightweight seeds and ability to thrive even in poor soils have allowed them to propagate aggressively. These opportunistic plants readily take root along roadsides, fields, and vacant lots where they can crowd out native grasses and wildflowers.

8. The dried leaves were traditionally smoked to treat lung conditions

In Native American and early American folk medicine, dried mullein leaves were rolled into cigarettes and smoked to combat harsh coughs or lung inflammation. The medicinal compounds in mullein smoke provide soothing respiratory relief. Modern studies have scientifically confirmed the efficacy of mullein smoke’s anti-inflammatory effects.

9. The stalks were dipped in suet to repel insects

In addition to improvised torches, Roman soldiers discovered that dipping mullein stalks in fat created natural insect repellants. The practice continues today in rural Appalachia where rendered animal fat dripped along the baseboards of cabins deters crawling insects. The greasy coating and fuzzy mullein surface traps and prevents bugs.

10. Mullein tea has been used to treat diarrhea, headaches, and joint pain

Mullein tea is an herbal infusion made from the leaves and flowers that has been used in traditional Austrian medicine for centuries. The anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibacterial compounds in mullein tea help alleviate headaches, joint/muscle aches, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and other conditions.

11. Mullein attracts many beneficial insects to gardens

While the towering flower stalks can appear imposing, mullein blooms attract many helpful pollinators. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds all visit the densely packed yellow flowers. Mullein also draws predatory insects that feast on pest species. Planting mullein near vegetable gardens increases pollination and natural pest control.

12. The stalks were traditionally dipped in tallow as fishing torches

In addition to improvised land torches, British fishermen learned to dip the dried mullein stems in rendered fat to create primitive fishing lights. These floating mullein torches enabled night fishing expeditions with free hands. The waterproofed stalks burned brightly for hours while attracting fish to the glow.


Frequently Asked Questions About Verbascum Plants

What are some common names for Verbascum plants

Some common names include mullein, common mullein, great mullein, Aaron’s Rod, flannel plant, velvet plant, blanket leaf, woolly mullein, torchwort, and golden rod.

Where do Verbascum plants grow?

Verbascum plants grow naturally throughout Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Some species have become widely naturalized around the world and grow commonly along roadsides, fields, and vacant lots.

What parts of Verbascum plants are used medicinally?

The leaves and flowers of Verbascum plants are primarily used to make medicinal infusions, poultices, smokes, and tinctures. The medicinal compounds provide anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, and soothing properties.

Were Verbascum plants used historically?

Yes, Verbascum plants have been used since ancient Greek and Roman times for medicinal remedies, improvised torches, candle/torch wicks, yellow dyes, insect repellants, and fishing lights thanks to their versatile properties.

Do Verbascum plants spread aggressively? 

Some species like great mullein spread rapidly and can crowd out native plants. Their lightweight seeds allow them to propagate quickly and thrive even in poor soils, enabling these opportunistic plants to become invasive weeds.

Conclusion

From ancient medicinal herbs to improvised torches, dyes, wicks, and insect repellants, Verbascum plants have provided many important uses for over 2000 years and counting. Even today, the versatility and hardiness of mullein continue to offer solutions for traditional herbal remedies, gardening applications, crafting projects, and more. Learning about this remarkable genus gives insight into the many ways plants and people interconnect across history.


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