In this article, you’ll learn how to forage for mullein flowers, leaves, and roots, then how to harvest and preserve them!
Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a favorite summer plant to forage! It has a unique look and lots of healthy benefits.
Once you learn about mullein and the things you can make from it, you’ll probably start noticing it everywhere – especially on roadsides or wherever the soil has been disturbed.
Related: Want to learn how to use mullein once you’ve grown or foraged it? Check out this article:
We have about 3 acres of invasive kudzu, and mullein grows all throughout it, shooting up and completing much of its growth before kudzu takes off for the year and starts covering it up.
How Mullein Grows
Mullein is a biennial plant – that means it completes its growing cycle over two years.
During the first year, it forms a rosette of fuzzy basal leaves, then during the second year, each rosette grows a tall flower spike (anywhere from 2 to 8 feet tall) covered with individual fuzzy green flower buds, that eventually open up, revealing five-lobed yellow flowers.
Much of the time the plant produces a single flower spike, though I’ve also found plants with more than one, especially later in the season.
The leaves are soft and wooly on all sides, and rubbing a leaf feels similar to flannel. Like flannel, some people enjoy the feel, and others find the texture irritating.
If you make an infusion with the leaves, then be sure to strain the fine hairs out with a square of old (clean) t-shirt or a coffee filter.
How to Grow Mullein from Seed
If you don’t have mullein growing where you live, consider starting a few plants from seed.
The seeds need light to germinate and can be scattered over lightly worked ground in full sun, then pressed into the soil. With plenty of sunshine, moderate water, and time, you’ll have mullein plants!
Mullein reseeds easily in the wild, and the same is true when growing purposefully in your garden.
You can buy mullein seeds from Strictly Medicinal Seeds.
How to Forage for Mullein
It’s easiest to identify mullein when it’s flowering, because it has a very distinctive flower stalk.
The flowers of common mullein are sulfur yellow and have 5 lobes.
When foraging, it’s helpful to carry along a good plant ID app for your phone (I love and constantly use the PictureThis Plant Identifier app) and at least one or two foraging/plant guides suitable for the area you live in.
As with all plants you gather from the wild, make sure you have permission to gather from an area, and avoid any growing on roadsides, since those areas are usually sprayed with herbicides during the growing season and can contain environmental contaminants from passing traffic.
Only a few flowers open on the stalk each day, so it’s helpful to visit your mullein plants every day or two during the flowering stage.
Always leave behind plenty of unpicked flowers too, for the pollinators to enjoy, and also to make sure the plants reseed and start the growth cycle again for next year!
When it’s flowering, it’s easy to identify mullein because of the distinctive flower stalk.
However, the younger plants can sometimes be mixed up with other plants.
It’s good to know the different possibilities you might spot, while you forage for mullein.
Lambs ear (Stachy byzantina) has a more grayish tone and more distinctive “hair” compared to the fuzziness of mullein. It spreads in clumps instead of forming rosettes, and also has pinkish purple flowers, instead of yellow.
This video by herbalist jim mcdonald is a must watch if you’re confused about the two plants:
Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)
I’ve also seen a few mix-ups between evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) and mullein.
It too is a biennial that forms a rosette of basal leaves the first year, and flowers the second. Evening primrose is not fuzzy like mullein though and as you can see by the photo above, the lance shaped leaves are very different.
Evening primrose grows tall and has stalks with yellow flowers, but the flower buds aren’t round little balls, are spaced further apart, and each flower opens in the evening.
(It’s really amazing to observe an evening primrose plant when it’s nearing twilight. The flower buds will suddenly unfurl right before your eyes. Fun to watch!)
Above is a photo of evening primrose in my garden – notice that the flowers have four petals. Mullein flowers have five lobes.
Evening primrose is used in many ways and is not a toxic lookalike, but it’s not the same as mullein.
Other Possible Lookalikes
Some people mix up young mullein with foxglove – here’s a great video that shows the visual difference:
There’s also the rare mullein foxglove (Dasistoma macrophylla), which is threatened in a couple of states. Since it’s threatened, if you come upon any of these plants, they should not be disturbed.
When to Harvest
Summer, or whenever the plant is blooming is the time to harvest mullein flowers.
The first year leaves are often used, but can be picked and used throughout most of the growing stage, including when flowering, though be sure to check out the note about drying larger leaves below. Choose the freshest cleanest leaves; leave behind any that are yellowed, browned, or dried.
The root is usually harvested from first year plants, or second year plants early in the season before flowering – this is where you want to be certain you’re harvesting mullein.
Harvesting Tip: When you harvest, you may notice little bugs, especially hiding in the flowers. Inspect well as you gather and gently shake or knock any little critters back onto the mullein plant, instead of bringing them home with you.
How to Dry & Preserve Mullein
The flowers can be spread over a paper towel or screen and allowed to air dry for several days. If using to make infused oil or tincture, go ahead and use them right away. You can store dried flowers for tea in brown paper bags or jars, out of sunlight for several months. Once they’ve started losing color, they’ve started losing potency.
The leaves are trickier to dry since they’re so thick. Be sure to pick the leaves when they’re completely dry – no dew or rain on them.
It helps to cut the leaves in portions, starting right down the middle. (I learned this handy trick from Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech – an awesome book!)
You can air dry leaves, cut into smaller pieces, on screens, but you can also use a dehydrator, set to 95 to 100 degrees F. Finely sliced washed roots can be dried in a dehydrator too.
Dried leaves can be stored in paper bags or jars, out of direct light for about 9 to 12 months, or until they start losing color.
Both leaves and flowers can be infused in oil to make oil and salves (recipes at our sister site – The Nerdy Farm Wife):
The infused oil is also commonly used for ear aches. (Drop a few drops of the gently warmed oil into your ear and hold a heating pad or hot water bottle over it. Not for swimmer’s ear though.)
The root can also be scrubbed and chopped, then tinctured right away while it’s fresh. (I use the imprecise folk method to make – 1 part chopped root, covered with 2 parts high proof vodka or everclear. Example: 1/4 cup chopped root to 1/2 cup vodka.)
At our house, we use this remedy for occasional flare-ups of back pain caused by an old construction injury/fall. (A few drops of tincture mixed with a spoonful of raw honey, taken 2 to 3 times per day, and before bedtime.) Mullein root tincture has an affinity for treating back pain.