We’ve all probably seen this plant on hunts and hikes, and thought, “That’s one fuzzy leaf.” But if you do your homework and find out more about this unusual-looking plant, you’ll discover that it’s far more than just a furry-leafed weed. Its name is mullein (Verbascum thapsus), and this plant offers more than a dozen uses. Many of these applications could be helpful, should we find ourselves in any kind of survival scenario. Even in an urban survival setting, you’re likely to find this plant. It loves dry sunny spots like road embankments and rocky highway medians, and it’s found along roadsides across the country.
Even though it’s not a native plant species, some Native Americans used fresh green mullein leaves as moccasin inserts to keep their feet warm. Not only do the fuzzy leaves offer insulation, they also release oil that opens up the capillaries to increase blood flow. It’s also been called “cowboy toilet paper,” though that use may not have soothing results. The irritating hairs and the vasodilating oil can cause a rash on the tender skin of your nether regions.
Mullein leaves can also be placed in hot water. Breathe in the steam to relieve congestion (though many Native folks just smoked the leaves for the same result). The pretty yellow flowers can also be soaked in oil to create earache relieving drops. The leaves can also be brewed into a tea for drinking, or mixed with tobacco and smoked.
And speaking of smoke… Mullein is one of my favorite hand-drill stalks for friction fire making. The dead leaves also make workable tinder. Select straight, dead stalks and trim off any rough spots. A light sanding on the stalk will save your hands from extra blisters (above and beyond the normal amount of blisters, that is). Twirl it on a softwood board like cedar, basswood, aspen, willow, or cottonwood and with much practice, you’ll start getting smoke and eventually learn to make embers with this ancient method. Very thick sections (about thumb diameter) can also be used for bow drill spindles. Normal drills have a pointy top, but you can’t carve a point on a mullein because it’s nearly hollow. But when coupled with an oversized and well-lubricated handhold socket, there’s no need for a point on the top of the drill.
Once you have your fire going, wouldn’t it be nice to have something you could cook over it? Mullein can help with that too. Although it’s illegal today, crushed mullein seeds have been used for centuries as an effective fish poison. The crushed seeds release saponins, glycosides, coumarin and rotenone into the water—all compounds that can stun fish and bring them to the surface. Used in a small body of water, it can bring up fish that are resistant to other forms of angling. Again, this is illegal and quite frankly unsportsmanlike, but in a dire emergency, do what you must. Just catch and gut the fish quickly to minimize the meat’s exposure to these toxins. Cook until well done.
What else do you use mullein for? Do you use wild plants for food or medicine? Please tell us your favorites by leaving a comment.