The Many-Named Mullein
Updated: Jan 8
Type “mullein” into your Internet browser and you’ll be inundated with articles on the medicinal uses and health benefits of this big, furry plant. I’ll spare you all that seriousness and simply talk about the variant monikers of polyonymous mullein!
Polyonymous means “having many names”, and if mullein can’t take that title, I don’t know what in the world can. This European native plant has spread globally to everywhere except the Artic. You can readily find it flourishing across all 50 U.S. states, especially on roadsides or recently disturbed land. Because it’s such a world traveler, mullein has adopted a slew of humorous yet lovingly appropriate nicknames along the way. I found over 30 common names for mullein, many—like “Bunny Ears” or “Flannel Leaf”—are a playful ode to the plant’s delightful fuzz, while others pay tribute to its utility in medicine or otherwise.
Let’s make one thing clear: Mullein is big! You can’t miss seeing it once it gets going. The first-year volunteer growing beneath my choke cherry tree is an almost two-foot wide, silvery-green rosette of leaves that have the feel of very fine velvet. Next year, this mullein will shoot up to six feet (or higher!) and display a thick stalk topped with yellow flowers that, among other things, can be used to create yellow, green, brown, or even black dye.
Now, onto the polyonymity! Mother Earth Living calls this plant an “engineering marvel”, and its wide variety of funny nicknames pays tribute to that fact. Here’s just a small sampling of the many names mullein goes by and the reasons behind them:
Quaker Rouge. Rubbing the leaves on the cheeks as a form of rouge cosmetic, likely the result of the mild contact dermatitis some people get from the down on the leaves.
Cowboy Toilet Paper. This name is more popular in the Western U.S. and—yes—mullein’s strong yet supple leaves could easily replace TP if you find yourself needing to make an emergency pit stop on a long road trip (although I’d advise against that practice if you can avoid it. Recall the mild contact dermatitis!).
Candlewick plant, Torch plant, Miner’s Candle. The leaves can be tightly rolled to make candlewicks, and the stalks (when dipped in tallow) were used by Ancient Roman’s as torches. Dead, dry stalks also make for good hand-drills for friction fire-making.
Witch’s Candle, Hag Taper. Legend has it that witches (hags) would use these torches to light their way… or else villagers would use the torches to repel witches. (Legends can be fickle things.)
Poor Man’s Blanket. Fresh mullein leaves have been used as moccasin inserts by Native Americans to insulate and help keep feet warm. The leaves “also release oil that opens up the capillaries to increase blood flow” which would also aid in staving off the cold.1 Hummingbirds have also been known to use bits of furry mullein leaf to line their nests.
One use of mullein that I couldn’t find an associated nickname for was its history as a piscicide (fish poison) in European and American culture. Mullein plants produce upwards of 100,000 seeds each, and those seeds contain a variety of compounds that are parallactic to fish, causing them to stop swimming and rise to the surface of the water, making them easy targets. This practice is highly illegal today (not to mention unsportsmanlike), so don’t go out fishing this summer intending to use a satchel of mullein seeds to make your catch! Getting caught for such an offense is illegal across the U.S. and could run you into a hefty fine or even jail time, either of which would be neither fun, nor funny.
 “Herb to Know: Mullein (Verbascum Thapsus)”, Ogden Publications, Inc., Aug/Sept 2009. www.motherearthliving.com/plant-profile/herb-to-know-mullein-verbascum-thapsus.
 Macwelch, Tim. “How to Identify and Use the Common Mullein for Natural Uses and Survival Situations”, Outdoor Life, 18April2016. www.outdoorlife.com/blogs/survivalist/how-identify-and-use-common-mullein-natural-uses-and-survival-situations.
 Wilhem Jr., Gene. The Mullein: Plant Piscicide of the Mountain Folk Culture, American Geographical Society, April 1974.