Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, is one of the first herbs many think of for the lungs. It has many uses besides being a superb respiratory tonic and expectorant though. The flower can used for ear aches, topically with the leaf for the musculoskelatal system and as nervine.
Have you ever smelled mullein flowers? They are incredibly sweet, delicate and flowery to the nose. Mullein is a member of the the Scrophularia (snapdragon) family and originally from Europe, and is one of the easiest herbs to distinguish with its downy lobed leaves, yellow flowers and tall flower stalk. I welcome mullein into my gardens (even though they can proliferate quickly) because they remind me of garden sentinels, keeping watch and adding interesting texture and line to the garden horizon.
Just looking at the velvety soft lobe-like leaves one can see that they must have demulcent actions. At the same time, mullein is also a little irritating if it is rubbed in the skin too much. These soothing yet irritating qualities may seem contradictory, but this is precisely how respiratory tonics work. The demulcents soothe the tissues which encourages mucus stuck here to loosen. The stimulating action irritates the lungs and makes for more productive coughs. There herbs work to help the body along and fulfill the purpose of the cough: to clear the airways of mucus (Hoffmann, 322).
Wood says that “Mullein is definitely the remedy for harsh coughs which have worn down the villa of the lungs” (27). That is, coughs that shake the whole body, almost hurting the chest and ribs. He also says “it is useful for harsh, hacking coughs with a dry irritated membrane and irritated cough reflex, where there is a lack of secretion” (494). I have heard of a case where a smoker who refused to give up the habit asked an herbalist for something for a horrible hacking cough. Mullein was smoked along with the tobacco and the cough went away. It has been incorporated into smoking rituals, as it is calming to the mind and has a sweet and vanilla-like flavor.
Mullein can be taken many ways for soothing the lungs, but infusions are my favorite. Mullein leaves are extremely easy to harvest, they are much less delicate than most other leaves. Pick leaves from the first year rosettes, slice down the middle stem to ensure proper drying, and lay out to dry. I like to dry them in the fall, when the weather becomes dryer, otherwise they seem to reabsorb the moisture from the air. When you are ready for making an infusion, take out a leaf or two, break them up a bit, and steep in hot water.
You can also find mullein in tincture form. I like it for blending with other expectorants (David Winston recommends elecampane, yerba santa, horehound and grindelia)(87), but I prefer the infusions for taken specifically mullein. Perhaps this is because I remember learning that starches are not extracted in alcohol,
Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.
Winston, David. Herbal Therapeutics.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.