INTRO: Mullein is a fuzzy-leaved, weedy plant that has a rich history of use dating back to the greeks (Dioscorides wrote about it!). The leaf is most often used, and it is known mostly for its action on the lungs, and can even be smoked. It is incredibly abundant in Washington, and is a fantastic and gentle medicine. I have put together a description of Mullein viewed from a Chinese medicine framework, and the unique insights that can be gained from that approach. I have attempted to use language that is accessible to those without a background in Chinese Medicine. I have also included some information on western usage. Enjoy!
PREPARATION: Hot water infusion of leaf is preferred, tincture is also used. When making the tea, be sure to strain carefully as the hairs often get into the tea and can irritate the throat.
HABITAT: Mullein grows in eastern and western Washington, enjoying the side of the highway, abandoned vacant lots and former forest fire areas. It's very weedy and easy to grow (all it needs is an invitation!). I have had trouble finding starts, but I have had success harvesting seeds from the dry stalks, and also transplanting from the wild.
HARVEST: Harvest leaves, preferably in the first year before the flower stalk emerges (which happens in the second year), in late summer to early spring (not early or mid summer). Dry thoroughly before storing them. It helps to slice the leaves up the stalk, which is thick and can retain water and cause mold. When not in flower, is is easily mistaken for foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) which also has fuzzy oblong leaves arranged in a basal rosette. Take care when harvesting in the wild and make sure you know your stuff.
ORGAN AFFINITY: Kidney, lungs and bladder
CHINESE MEDICINE: cool, bitter and slightly acrid
Clears heat in the lung and transforms phlegm: Mullein leaf can be used for both chronic and acute conditions where there is irritation (heat) and excess dampness in the lungs. If you have a cold, for example, and you have a dry cough with difficult to expectorate mucus, mullein leaf could moisten lung tissue and loosen and mobilize thickened phlegm to dissipate it and drain downwards. It’s commonly thought that mullein helps repair damaged lung tissue from illness or exposure. This action is helpful in smokers, but also in people exposed to wildfire smoke to keep lung tissue healthy and functioning. The lungs are the first and most important step of qi production in the body, making it very important to keep them strong.
Tonify lung yin:Though mullein leaf doesn’t strongly tonify lung yin, it can be combined with other herbs (marshmallow, American ginseng, licorice) to strengthen that action.
Drains the lungs (downbears lung qi): Most fluid transportation action in the body is shared by 3 of the 5 major organs (spleen, kidney, lung), which means that if one or more these organs is weak, dampness will accumulate somewhere. This could cause yeast infections, bladder irritation, constipation, edema, brain fog, phlegmy cough, dull achy joints etc. Mullein supplements lung and kidney qi and is bitter (drains downward), which gives it an ideal double action for draining this type of dampness. I include it in formulas with fenugreek (increases spleen yang) and licorice (tonifies spleen qi) for dampness accumulation in the lower burner.
Gently tonifies kidney qi: The tonic action of mullein leaf is not as strong as ginseng, but it can be a better choice where there is heat and or dampness present, which ginseng can be contraindicated for. It can be combined with nettle seed for gout, which is often caused by weak kidneys that fail to filter blood properly and lead to uric acid crystals being deposited in the joints (ouch!).
Clears deficiency heat: Just as in an engine with no oil, a body with no yin or blood will create heat. This is different from true heat, and must be approached carefully, as many heat clearing herbs (goldenseal, gentian, dandelion) deplete yin and blood if overused. For this, you need herbs like mullein leaf, which both nourish fluids and clear deficiency heat. Some signs that deficiency heat may be present are general weakness, depletion, coldness or fatigue in combination with signs of heat such as hot flashes, night sweats, redness and inflammation, red tongue body, anxiety, heart palpitations etc. Though the most common combination is yin deficiency heat, you may also see blood or qi deficiency heat as well. This is rather common among my clients and the people I encounter, as we overwork ourselves and take poor care of our spleens, which causes yin and blood deficiency, respectively.
Clears heat in the bladder and promotes urination: Mullein leaf tea can be used for pressure in the bladder, dribbling, chronic bladder irritation, frequency, or difficult urination. Mullein is indicated where there is heat in the bladder, which is typically indicated by dark yellow urine, sometimes scanty and hot. It will work best when lung weakness is causing damp heat accumulation in the lower burner. Look for shortness of breath, etc.
MULLEIN ROOT AS MEDICINE:
Mullein root is used in Western Herbalism to relax and nourish connective tissue and synovial fluid. In recent years, Western herbalists have been using it for spinal issues, including injury and misalignment. If we look at other plants in the scrophulariaceae family, we find herbs like rehmannia glutinosa, pedicularis, and figwort. All of these plants are unique in that they clear blood heat and promote lubrication in the body. Pedicularis, for example, also is thought to have an affinity with the spine, specifically tightness in the neck. Prepared rehmannia (prepared by soaking it in rice wine and water solution and then steaming it for 8 hours and drying it) is used to tonify blood, and tonify kidney yin. “Blood” according to Chinese medicine, and especially liver blood, is responsible for nourishing the tendons, muscles and connective tissue to keep it well supplied with nutrients and well lubricated. Yin is also responsible for lubricating joints. Mullein root not only mirrors the affinity for the kidneys (herbalists are now using it for chronic cystitis, nighttime urination, and difficult urination), but potentially this blood nourishing aspect (which would explain the musculoskeletal uses). I wonder if we prepared mullein root like cooked rehmannia whether it would nourish the blood even more strongly.
MULLEIN FLOWERS AS MEDICINE:
Mullein flowers have a small scope of use in western herbalism as an external demulcent. If you think about what you’ve read so far about the fluid nourishing aspects of mullein, we can extend that to the flowers as well. Though people do infuse oil with the fresh flowers and apply it to the skin, the most common use is to combine the flowers with garlic in an infused oil, and drip in the ear for ear infections. I tried this remedy in college and found it to be very successful! I don’t use the flowers much since they are time consuming to pick, but if you were to stumble into a whole meadow of flowering mullein I suppose you couldn’t say no! Pluck them out one by one and infused them into olive oil fresh.
First of all, strain mullein tea through a very fine mesh strainer or through fabric in order to remove the small hairs. They can irritate the throat, and are not necessarily harmful, but very annoying. According to several sources, there are no reports of contraindications or interactions.