Flora and fauna: A weed used to treat cattle with coughs
Aaron’s Rod, Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
THIS is a weed common in waste places, roadsides and field edges, but the five feet inflorescence is quite dramatic in appearance. It belongs to the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae).
Young plants in the first year look like a collection of woolly cloths closely arranged on the ground. It has a long, woody root. In the second year, a tall inflorescence arises from the centre, bearing a mass of tightly arranged, golden-yellow, cup-shaped flowers just over an inch across.
The leaves are clothed in a dense whitish wool, hence the name mullein (from the old English for soft). But it has many more names that refer to this woolly texture, such as Our Lady’s Candle, donkey’s ears, hare’s beard and flannel plant for obvious cleansing reasons, and, in the USA, even more obviously, cowboy’s toilet paper. It is also known as hag taper – if the inflorescence is dipped in fat it could be used as a torch.
Nowadays, it’s also known as the Andrex plant.
The small seeds, produced in autumn, have remarkable longevity. A Dr WJ Beal set up an experiment in 1879 to test the viability of seed. He took 50 bottles of mixed sand and seed, each bottle containing 50 seeds from 21 different species.
These were to be sampled by planting out the contents every five years to assess germination. This was soon extended to every ten years and now even longer. The most recent sample was in 2020 and the experiment is planned to end in 2100.
Mullein seed was proved to be still germinating after the first 100 years (presumably not by Dr Beal himself, unless his own powers of longevity are even greater).
Mullein has many strange uses. In Greece and Spain the seeds have been used for poisoning fish, while extracts of the leaves have been included in cigarettes for asthmatics.
It may also have antiseptic properties, since Pliny observed that figs wrapped in mullein leaves stayed fresh for much longer. Farmers have used the leaves to treat cattle for persistent coughs, hence yet another name: bullock’s lungwort. Although there are no approved medical preparations from mullein, the herbalists recommend an infusion for the removal of rough (but not smooth) warts, root decoctions for relief of gout, and powdered flowers to cure belly-ache.
The plants can be seen in all their summer glory on waste ground at the top of the Demesnes, in Barnard Castle.
Dr Richard Warren is a botanist from Barnard Castle