It's mid autumn. Leaves are falling in clusters of color as the days go faster, and the night grows longer. The sap runs in rivulets from the bark of the old white pine. We've collected fallen pine cones which are heavily encrusted with this fragrant medicine this year. The last of the nuts have fallen and the last of the poke berries have been gathered to dry, and now the rose hip and hawthorn berries are ripe for gathering. Every where around us is the abundance of autumn.
After the first frosts of the season, when our green friends have gathered their vitality back into to their subterranean roots to sustain them through the cold of winter, it is time to begin digging and making root medicine: sassafras, echinacea, valerian, burdock, mullein and many, many more. but before gathering, remember: take only what you need and leave some for the animals and some to regenerate in their environs. h
This year I have made my grandmother's mullein leaf & flower cough syrup and am ticking away the days before I can go up into the hills to gather the roots beneath the first year mullein rosettes hugging the ground. It is said that the best leaves are those of the first year rosettes, and they are frost hardy, so you still have time to gather some to dry for tea or to tincture!
Mullein is an old world plant with an ancient medicinal history and has been naturalized around the world. It really is an amazing plant with uses too vast to go into here, so I will focus on those medicinal uses which have served me well.
It is a traditional lung medicine, the leaves (which resemble the lung in shape) have been gathered and dried to be smoked by asthmatics for generations. While smoking is frowned upon in general these days, this delivers the medicine directly to the capillaries of the lungs, opening constricted pathways. I believe the old Aristotelean dictum "moderation in all things" applies here and can attest that mullein has relieved the wheeze in my lungs after smoking it for lung medicine.
While most folks know of the traditional use of mullein's leaves as a lung medicine, and know of it's flowers steeped in oil to cure earaches, few people are aware of the value of the mullein's first year root as a medicine for back pain caused by misalignment. I was made aware of this lesser-known medicinal value of mullein to help realign backs by Jim McDonald
, an herbalist out of Michigan. As Jim puts it, to see mullein's potential to align backs, one need only consider how the first year rosettes of this biennial push forth a straight central stalk in its second year. All of this potential lies waiting in the roots of the first year rosettes. This staff-like stalk of the second year plant generally reaches a height of five to six feet tall, but we have many that grow over ten feet tall here on the farm. The central stalk has opposite leaves growing up its entirety and is crowned with a spike that yields bright yellow flowers in the summer months.
First year mullein root puts the spine into alignment. Within a week of taking my tincture in a small amount of water, I found relief, my stiff spine loosening and my lower spine realigning --which bought great relief to my back which had stiffened to the point of feeling like it was nailed to 2" x 4" across my lower spine. Back in the early 1600's, Culpepper said mullein helps stiff sinews to loosen up, and both Matthew Wood
(out of Minnessota) and Jim McDonald testify to mullein's ability to help restore synovial fluids --which lubricates joints. Jim Mcdonald, employs the root tincture, and I believe Matthew Wood uses poultices of the first year leaves for this same purpose. Neither herbalist is certain of the mechanism behind this remedy, but they are as certain as I am from employing it it in their practice and for their own personal healing. I take my tincture once a day, as part of my health regimen (supplementing with more on days that are especially painful) along with one dried pokeberry (as Dot Montgillion advised) and have found both to be invaluable in relieving the aches and pains which have come to plague me in West Virginia's humid environment.
If you have a stand of mullein which you know to be free of chemical sprays, it's not too late for gathering leaves from the first year rosettes (which are the best quality leaves to get), before the energy is expended on the stalk and flowers next year. And while it's too late for flowers this year, be on the look out next summer for their yellow blooms and gather them daily as they come into their short lived bloom.
Since it's fall, and fall is the time for root medicine, i invite you to create your own mullein root tincture. Wait at least 3-4 days after a good rain, and search out two or three large first year rosettes to dig. Before digging thank the mullein for growing and tell it what use you are going to put it to. Sing a song of thanks as you dig and be kind to this generous being for providing you with much needed medicine. Mullein has a tap root which is relatively easy to dislodge, but be prepared to dig! Shake off any loose dirt and place the root in your gathering bag.
Once home, Lightly wash your roots in water with a soft brush. Do not scrub. Shake as much excess water off as you can and then pat dry. Chop your roots into small pieces and place in a quart jar to half full. Cover with 90 proof alcohol (vodka) which is called the menstrum and place the jar in a dark cupboard. Shake about once a day with respect and intention (add your healing energy to the medicine). After about 6 to 8 weeks, the tincture is ready. You can expect the tincture to take on a rich color over the weeks of steeping. It can sit in the menstrum longer than this (I tincture mine for months) without bad effect. Decant, strain the root pieces (marc) from the menstrum and press with a potato ricer, or wrap in gauze or muslin and squeeze what ever you can from the roots. Strain the liquid with a filter lined sieve (coffee filter, paper towel, gauze, or muslin) to assure all foreign particles are removed. Funnel into a dark bottles that have a squeeze bulb dropper top. Keep out of direct sunlight.