A tall, hardy biennial, growing to 2 m (6 ft.), it has a basal rosette of soft, downy, blue-grey leaves, broadly ovate in shape, in the first year. Yellow flowers are borne on tall spikes in the second year.
History and traditions
“Candlewick plant” and “hag’s taper” are two of the many country names for this plant and refer to its former use, when dried, as a lamp wick or taper. The tall flower spires also look like giant candles, as described by Henry Lyte: “the whole toppe, with its pleasant yellow floures sheweth like to a wax candle or taper cunningly wrought” (The Niewe Herball, 1578). As a medicinal herb, it was taken for colds, in the form of “mullein tea”, as indeed it still is, and was sometimes smoked as a tobacco for coughs and asthma (which must have made things worse). It also made a yellow hair dye. Throughout Europe and Asia mullein had an ancient reputation as a magic plant, capable of driving away evil spirits.
Thrives in dry, stony or gravelly soil and a sunny position. Propagated by seed sown in autumn. Often self-seeds.
Leaves dried for use in infusions and liquid extracts; flowers fresh or dried for infusions. Preparations must be carefully strained to eliminate irritating fine particles.
It has antiseptic properties and is rich in soothing mucilage. Its main use is for coughs, colds, influenza and respiratory infections, when it is taken as an infusion. It is also sometimes recommended for colic, digestive upsets, nervous tension and insomnia. An infused oil, made of the flowers, has been applied to sores and chapped skin.