Mullein for Lung Health & More: How to Use All Parts of This Amazing Herb

Many people use mullein for lung health, but it offers more health benefits. Learn how to use the leaves, flower, and root of Verbascum thapsus.

Whether you deal with allergies, a sensitive respiratory system, or occasional coughs like most people, you need to know about mullein. It’s one of the most soothing and supportive herbs for your respiratory tract!

But even if you already know about using mullein for lung health, you may not realize it has many other health benefits.

In fact, you can use the leaves, flowers, and roots to support many health and wellness needs. If you’re ready to enjoy all the humble herb mullein has to offer you, I’ve got the details you need here.

“I Can Finally Take a Deep Breath Again.”

When a family friend visited our church one weekend, he mentioned he’d been fighting off a respiratory infection for a while. It wasn’t severe, but his lungs still felt heavy and congested.

Since he and his family would be in our area for a few days, I went straight to my apothecary closet and brought out some faithful respiratory herbs that fit his needs.

The star of the blend? Mullein leaf.

first year mullein plant with large rosette of leaves
Mullein is one of the best herbs for supporting your respiratory system, but that’s not all it can do!

The next day, he and his wife were thrilled to report the almost immediate effects. “I can finally take a deep breath again,” he said. All it took was a couple cups of the tea blend the night before.

I don’t usually expect immediate results from herbs. They can take time to work as they support your body’s innate healing capabilities. But sometimes the right herb can go to work extremely fast and mullein certainly did that for my friend.

It was a perfect reminder about how effective this gentle, common plant can be!

Basic Information About Mullein

Mullein Species and Botanical Names

Mullein, pronounced MULL-en, is sometimes called velvet dock (thanks to the soft, hairy leaves shaped like yellow dock leaves), Aaron’s rod (thanks to the tall, budding flower stalk), or shepherd’s staff (again, due to the tall flower stalk).

Common mullein is Verbascum thapsus. This is the mullein you’re most likely to see growing wild in fields and roadsides. If you forage mullein, you’re likely gathering Verbascum thapsus.

There’s also Greek mullein, Verbascum olympicum. It’s sometimes cultivated in commerce for the large flowers that open all at once along the tall flower stalk.

How to Identify Mullein

After learning about mullein in my first herb book, I started looking for it in the wild. It didn’t take long to realize that mullein grows everywhere! I was delighted to discover stands of this herb growing along roadways, at forest edges, and in open fields.

Once you spend a little time with mullein, you’ll be able to quickly spot it in many places, too.

Mullein is a biennial plant. That means it has a two-year lifecycle and will look different as a first-year and second-year plant.

During its first year, mullein grows as a basal rosette of large, thick, oblong leaves covered in soft but spiky hairs. New leaves grow out from the center, with larger, old leaves at the bottom of the rosette and smaller, new leaves on top.

Its gray-green color is usually quite different from other nearby plants.

tall mullein plant in a field
It’s hard to miss mullein’s tall flavor stalk during its second year

The next year, as the plant matures, mullein sends up a tall, thick flower stalk. In the right growing conditions, this stalk can get up to 10 feet tall! It’s usually single, though it will sometimes branch into multiple flower stalks.

Smaller leaves will grow halfway up the stalk alternately, while flower buds form on the top half. These buds open sporadically into small yellow flowers that speckle the stalk.

Mullein Look-Alikes: One Deadly, One Medicinal, One Mild

If you’re new to identifying plants, you might think that a first-year mullein plant looks like lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina). But some clear differences will help you know the difference between the two.

  • Lamb’s ear is much smaller than mullein.
  • Lamb’s ear grows more upright and not in a basal rosette.
  • If it flowers, lamb’s year has purple flowers. Mullein will always flower in the second year with yellow blooms.
  • Lamb’s ear is velvety to the touch with soft hairs you can almost comb, while mullein leaves are covered in stiffer, spiky hairs that stick straight out.
  • Lamb’s ear leaves have longer, distinct stems. Mullein leaves attach more directly to the center of the basal rosette or flower stalk.
Lambs ear is the most common mullein look alike
Notice how lamb’s ear has long, fine hairs that lay flat against the leaves

If you accidentally mistake lamb’s ear for mullein leaf, you won’t do any harm. Lamb’s ear is edible and offers some medicinal uses, though different ones than mullein. It’s the mild look-alike.

The Stakes are Higher Here

However, a less common case of mistaken identity lies in mixing up mullein and foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). These plants look completely different in flower, but their young basal rosettes might be confusing if you don’t have a lot of foraging experience.

Foxglove’s leaves are a darker, true green and don’t lay quite as flat as mullein’s. Mullein’s inner rosette leaves will also be a light gray color, getting greener as they grow and mature. Foxglove’s are all the same green color.

Young foxglove leaves can be mistaken for mullein leaves
Foxglove’s young leaves might remind you of mullein if you’re new to both plants

Medical herbalists and herbally-trained doctors know how to carefully use foxglove for heart conditions, but this isn’t your home herbalist type of plant. In fact, even as a clinical herbalist who teaches classes and works with clients, I don’t use foxglove medicinally because of potential toxicities. It’s the deadly look-alike.

To me, foxglove’s first-year basal rosette looks a lot more like comfrey, which some people also confuse with mullein. Comfrey isn’t my favorite herb to use internally, but it isn’t potentially fatal like foxglove is. Comfrey is the medicinal look-alike.

Comfrey leaves can be mistaken for mullein
Comfrey leaves are sometimes mistaken for foxglove or mullein

Moral of the story: always get a proper identification on any herb that’s new to you. If you aren’t sure about a plant, let it mature. You’ll know what it is once it flowers.

Which Parts of Mullein Are Medicinal?

While people may use mullein leaf most often, mullein flower and mullein root have health benefits, too!

Even though the entire mullein plant is useful, herbalists generally use each part of the plant for different purposes. I like to use mullein leaves for respiratory support, mullein flowers for skin-soothing properties, and mullein root for musculoskeletal health. More on that in a moment.

Gathing Your Own Mullein

I’ve never purposely planted mullein seeds, but when I see baby mullein plants coming up in risky areas, I sometimes transplant them to a safe place in my garden.

What makes an area risky for mullein? Well, my husband does. He’s a weeder, though he means no harm. But if something’s not in a clear garden spot, it’s just another green weed to him.

I’ve lost many a baby mullein to his usually helpful weeding excursions. So now my children and I take extra care to point out the mulleins, hoping they survive his trowel.

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How to Grow and Forage Mullein

Mullein is such a common plant that you may never need to buy the dry herb if you live in a temperate part of the world.

It likes disturbed, well-drained soil and lots of sun, but isn’t overly picky, either. If you let it grow into a second-year plant, it’ll readily self-seed and you’ll find mullein babies showing up in random places for years to come.

You can also grow mullein from seed if you don’t see it growing wild around you. Growing from seed also allows you to grow Greek mullein for an easier flower harvest.

You can harvest mullein leaves anytime during the first year or early during its second year. I’ve heard some herbalists say that the second-year leaves are more or less valuable than first-year leaves, but I haven’t found one or the other to be true. Just look for fresh, undamaged leaves and you’ll be fine.

Mullein can show up anywhere in your yard and garden

I like to harvest mullein root from first-year plants in the fall or from second-year plants in the spring. This gives the plant time to grow and develop a large root system before spending its energy on stalk and flower production.

You can only harvest flowers from second-year plants. If you harvest from common mullein, you’ll need to visit your often to get most of its flowers.

Tips for an Easy Mullein Leaf Harvest

Once you know you’ve correctly identified mullein, you’ll need a few simple tips for a successful harvest.

Because they’re covered in hairs, mullein leaves love to hang onto soil and other organic matter around them. And while you might think you can just bring dirty leaves inside and wash them off in your sink, that generally doesn’t work well. Those hairs make it nearly impossible to fully wash a mullein leaf!

Rather than fight with stubborn soiled mullein leaves, follow these harvest tips.

  • Try to harvest after it hasn’t rained for a while. Rain splashes soil and other particles onto the leaves.
  • Leave the bottom rosette leaves on the plant and harvest the top leaves, instead. These are much less likely to have any dirt on them.
  • Snip the leaves off with scissors so you don’t accidentally pull up the plant and a whole bunch of soil when harvesting.
  • If you find some soiled leaves, clean them with a soft, dry brush. This works better than washing them in water.
Close up of mullein leaf and large center rib of leaf
Some basic harvest tips will help you get clean mullein leaves without dirt and debris clinging

Harvesting Mullein Flowers: Pick Your Path

You have a couple of options for an easy mullein flower harvest.

The first is to plant Greek mullein (Mullein olympicum). Remember, this plant’s large flowers open all at once during its second year. If you want a reliable flower harvest, this is probably your best plan.

The second option is to visit your native mullein patch daily, or at least every 2-3 days. You’ll be able to gather a handful or so of flowers each time you do. By the end of the summer, you should have enough mullein flower for the year. This option is admittedly a bit tedious, but sometimes I enjoy the repetitive, quiet task.

If you’re harvesting the root, you don’t have to follow any special instructions. Just look for large first-year plants in the fall or second-year plants in the spring. Swirl the roots in a bowl or bucket of water to get off as much soil as you can before bringing them indoors for a final cleaning.

Dehydrating Mullein Leaf? Do This.

Mullein flowers dry easily, even if you don’t have a dehydrator. I often leave them on the top of my dehydrator while it’s running with other herbs inside. The residual heat is enough to fully dry them in a day, if not less.

The leaves can be a bit tricky to dry, though. They have a very thick and juicy midrib which doesn’t easily dehydrate. Many people will try drying their freshly harvested mullein leaves, only to find them getting black or moldy down that center midrib.

Close up of mullein leaves to see hairs and thick veins
The thick center midrib can make dehydrating mullein leaf a little challenging

While it’s heartbreaking to see your herbs go bad, there are three easy ways to avoid this problem.

  • Simply cut out the midrib completely and compost it. The leaf will still be effective without it.
  • You can try to cut the leaf down the center of the midrib. I find my knife or kitchen scissors always want to slide off to one side or another, so I usually don’t bother with this option.
  • Sometimes I take kitchen scissors and cut the leaves with a zigzag down the midrib. This works better than cutting it straight down the middle.

Any of these options will leave you with fully dried mullein leaves that won’t spoil from excess moisture.

Mullein Benefits, Actions, and Herbal Energetics

While mullein is a fantastic herb for lung health, it offers so much more than that! Just as echinacea isn’t only an immune herb and plantain isn’t just a skin herb, mullein supports many other systems besides the respiratory system.

In fact, modern research studies regularly demonstrate just how valuable mullein is for your health and wellness!

On the whole, mullein is considered a cooling and moistening herb.

Mullein leaf held up to light looks like the lungs, doctrine of signatures with mullein
Held up to light, mullein leaf reminds you of a lung. That helps you remember how it can help your body.

Mullein Leaf: A Respiratory Herbal Powerhouse

  • Mullein leaf is an excellent support for the respiratory tract, both in cases with dry, spasmodic coughs (paired with other moistening herbs) and wet, productive ones (paired with warming and moving herbs).
  • As an expectorant, it helps the body thin and expel stuck mucus from the lungs and airways thanks to its saponin content.
  • Its anti-spasmodic actions can help calm a stubborn cough that makes it difficult to rest.
  • Since it contains mucilage and is anti-inflammatory, it moisturizes and soothes dry, inflamed tissues.
  • It also offers astringent actions, toning tissues that are bogged down with excess fluid or mucus (like my friend experienced when his lungs felt heavy).
  • As a mild lymphatic herb, it supports good lymphatic flow and drainage.
  • Its healing properties also make it a unique topical treatment for sores, swollen glands, and even mastitis.

Mullein Flower: Anti-Inflammatory Super-Soother

  • Like the leaf, mullein flower offers soothing benefits for the respiratory tract.
  • As an emollient herb, it can help soothe and moisturize irritated tissues and speed healing.
  • Its potent anti-inflammatory actions help reduce pain and inflammation, particularly in the ear during earaches.
  • Herbalist jim mcdonald loves mullein flower as a lymphatic herb, supporting good lymph flow and drainage.
Close up of mullein flowers from Verbascum thapsus
Mullein flowers are soothing and anti-inflammatory, though they take a while to harvest

Mullein Root: A Humble Helper for Back and Joint Pain

  • Its anti-inflammatory properties are specific for the low-back and pelvic region.
  • It may support joint health by reducing pain and supporting joint lubrication.
  • Like the leaves and flowers, mullein root has also been traditionally used to support the respiratory tract during sickness.
  • This research study even found mullein root possesses some antibacterial and biofilm inhibition actions.

How to Use Mullein as an Herbal Remedy

You have numerous options when it comes to making mullein into an herbal remedy. I have a list of ideas for you below.

But Don’t Do This with Mullein Leaves

But there’s one idea I always recommend against.

Some people mistakenly call mullein “cowboy toilet paper,” “Indian toilet paper,” and similar names because they’ve heard it makes a great natural toilet paper when you’re camping or hiking.

That’s a really, really bad idea.

Mullein for Lung Health & More, How to Use All Parts of This Amazing Herb
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Remember all those stiff, spiky hairs that cover mullein leaves? Well, if you rub the leaves on your skin, those hairs don’t stay put. They’ll come out and lodge themselves into your skin.

And if you decide to use a mullein leaf as toilet paper when in the wilderness, well, I’ll let you imagine what could happen.

You’ve been warned.

Helpful Ways to Benefit from Mullein

Now that you know it doesn’t make a great toilet paper substitute, you can stick with these better uses and get amazing health benefits from mullein.

Mullein Remedies for Internal Use

  • Make a basic hot water infusion with mullein leaf for respiratory support. Use 1 tablespoon of mullein leaf per cup of freshly boiled water. Steep for 15-30 minutes, then strain very well to avoid getting any mullein hairs in your tea. I like using muslin tea bags for easy straining.
  • Mullein flowers are also excellent additions to anti-inflammatory tea blends for the respiratory or digestive tract.
  • You can tincture any part of the plant, using a 1:5 tincture ratio at 50% alcohol (100 proof) for dry plant material or 1:2 at 95% alcohol (190 proof) for fresh. I tincture each plant part separately.
  • To make a water extract with the roots, boil 1 teaspoon of chopped root per 1 cup of water. Reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes, then strain and drink. This is called a decoction.
  • You can make a kid-friendly leaf extract by extracting fresh mullein leaves into vegetable glycerine. I do this at a 1:2 ratio, using 100% glycerine.

Some people also smoke mullein leaves for bad lung congestion. Smoke is irritating, so sometimes this method can help move thick, stuck mucus from deep in the lungs.

However, I’m not convinced that’s the best way to use mullein. I prefer to use mullein leaf tea for lung congestion and have found it very effective in my own home, with friends and family, and with my clients.

Warm steam and common, must-have essential oils can help get stuck mucus out from deep in the lungs without inhaling smoke.

Second year mullein plant sending up tall flower stalk
You can use all parts of the mullein plant for internal and topical herbal remedies

Mullein Remedies for Topical Use

  • Infuse freshly dried mullein flowers into olive oil for an anti-inflammatory, emollient topical remedy. Simply place the flowers in a jar and cover with olive oil, or follow my instructions for potent herbal oils.
  • Use mullein flower-infused oil in salves, skincare, and homemade lip balm. It’s a very soothing ingredient!
  • Make a mullein leaf poultice by scalding whole leaves in boiling water, then cooling them. Place them on swollen lymph nodes, sores, or other areas of congestion to help move fluid. You can place a warm towel over the leaves to help increase the action.

Is Mullein Safe for Everyone?

Mullein leaf is an extremly safe and well-tolerated herb. You can use it with toddlers and young children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and elders.

For best results, always make sure you strain any mullein leaf preparation thoroughly. If you want to make absolutely sure no mullein leaf hairs make it into your teas and tinctures, you can even strain them a second time through a paper coffee filter.

And, as mentioned earlier, always make sure you’ve correctly identified mullein when you wildcraft so that you don’t accidentally harvest foxglove. This can be deadly.

Mullein for Lung Health and More How to Use All Parts of Mullein
Mullein is a must-have herbal remedy everyone should have on hand

Hopefully you’re now convinced that using mullein for lung health is just one way to appreciate and benefit from this wild herb. With anti-inflammatory, wound-healing, and antispasmodic actions, to name a few, mullein can support all sorts of body systems.

So when you see it popping up unexpectedly in your garden, remember three things.

  • Transplant it to a mullein-safe space away from ambitious weeders.
  • Don’t use it for toilet paper.
  • And harvest as much as you can so you can enjoy it all year.

You’ll be grateful you did!

Your Turn:

What kind of experience do you have using mullein for lung health, or perhaps other benefits?

Cech, Richo. (2016). Making Plant Medicine. Herbal Reads: William, OR.

Culpeper, Nicholas. (2019). Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. (Steven Foster, Ed). Sterling: New York.

Easley, Thomas & Horne, Seven. (2016). The Modern Herbal Dispensatory: A Medicine-Making Guide. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley.

Fritchey, Philip. (2004). Practical Herbalism: Ordinary Plants with Extraordinary Powers. Whitham Publications: Warsaw, IN.

Green, James. (2000).The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual. Crossing Press: New York.

Grellin, John K. & Philpott, Jane. (1989). A Reference Guide to Medicinal Plants: Herbal Medicine Past and Present. Duke University Press: Durham.

Hoffmann, David. (2003). Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Healing Arts Press: Rochester, VT.

Rose, Lisa. (2017). Midwest Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and Use 109 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness. Timber Press: Portland.

Stansbury, Jill. (2018). Herbal Formularies for Health Professionals, Volume 2: Circulation and Respiration. Chelsea Green: White River Junction, VT.

Wood, Matthew. (2008). The Earthwise Herbal Volume I: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley.

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    20 Comments

    1. I put mullein leafs in a jr and filled with vodka 80 proof ! Do I strain it and put it back in a jar ? Can it be a regular jar?

      1. After I strain my tinctures, I like to keep them in dark amber bottles, like these. But in a pinch, I’ve used clean mason jars, too. They’re harder to pour from and have to be kept in a dark place, though.

    2. We have fresh growing wild Mullein here on the land, I use it to off set the us air force chemtrails sprays. I never had sinus until about 8 years ago when they started spraying daily. Mullein takes care of it at deep levels and my lungs are basically cleared and cleaned. Thought I would pass that very important information along.

    3. This is a very useful story I am happy to say that Mullein is very much a part of my life for it’s beauty alone..I have learned even more about it and it’s medicinal uses by reading this. Thank You

    4. I have not used it — yet. This is one I am wanting to start using this year. I am so excited to see 5 different areas with rosettes around our property. Yay! I cannot wait until I can harvest some.

      1. That’s always exciting! I transplanted four or five small rosettes in the fall. They were growing in random places, so now they should be safe from being trampled or mowed. 🙂

    5. This is a wonderful giveaway! I use mullein in my formula for coughs, congestion, and asthma!

    6. Thank you for sharing about these herbs and remedies! I love to use them, and to keep learning more.

    7. Mullein is a favorite in our house. I have made mullein flower oil, mullein tea and mullein glycerite and they all work well for various issues! I am prone to earaches due to abundant buildup of wax and also catch cold easily, so keeping mullein around is a top priority!

    8. I’ve always wanted to grow mullein as allergies and sinus troubles seem to afflict our family!

    9. I’m sure this was one of the many ‘weeds’ I’ve pull in my lifetime. Just think how healthy I could be had I eaten them rather than killed them! 🙁

    10. I am excited to learn more about this herb and add it to my medicine cupboard. Thanks for the information!

    11. I believe this is growing wild all around me! Looking forward to trying it as a cough remedy.
      I love this monthly focus you do – thank you for the time and effort you’ve put into these posts for us!