The Hag's Taper: Mullein
The Bone Mother is touching the leaves of the trees and watching them drop brown, red, gold, and dead. The beautiful process of Autumn is begun in the mountains, though it's been hotter than Hades these last few days. Our Harvest Home celebration has come and gone, the autumnal equinox tucked into the skirt-folds of the Old Year. We're spending our days here at the Hawk picking tomatoes and peppers, drying nettles, tulsi basil and calendula, and beginning the acorn season. Though abundance surrounds us, the scent of woodsmoke is on the evening wind and we've made our first fire in the fireplace tonight.
I'm brimming with Spring like excitement over my Fall Classes. I am especially excited about my Witchlore class and my Poison Path: Poison Plants of Appalachia class. In preparation, I wanted to talk about one of my favorite friends in my witch's garden. Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). Though we don't often think of this plant as part of the poison pantheon, I'll tell you, it is.
Mullein is not native to Appalachia. It was brought here from Europe and Asia where it originated. Some say it traveled with the Puritans for use in the Physic gardens of the New World. This garden escapee quickly naturalized throughout North America and entered the folk medicine and magical systems of peoples across this land. It was Mullein's usefulness in medicine that made it so popular, as well as its usefulness against evil as we shall see.
This plant was used to treat many things, but overwhelmingly it was used to treat respiratory illnesses and colds. The leaves were smoked or made into a tea, often sweetened with honey. This practice can be seen in many places worldwide and in America from the Ozarks to Appalachia and even all the way to Canada. Though often considered a gentle medicine, it used in more serious respiratory conditions like Tuberculosis, or consumption as it was called due to the way it consumed you.
In Appalachia it was one of the most popular plants used in herbal medicine (Cavendar). It was chewed, smoked and made into tea for all manners of lung ailments including TB. It was eventually incorporated into the medical practices of Native peoples in the area as well as the African American folk medicine lexicon. Sometimes it was mixed with brown sugar and wild cherry bark, or rabbit tobacco and horehound with coughs. Salt and mullein tea was used to bathe swollen body parts and the leaves themselves bound around limbs to reduce swelling in injuries. Whooping cough and malaria also called for the mullein. It doesn't seem like there was much Mullein couldn't soothe.
I recently used the roots of Mullein for a stubborn bladder infection with much success. The root decoction was used in Appalachia for this purpose, and I had never heard of this use. After doing some research, I tried it on myself and I was pleased with it all around I chopped a 1/4 cup of root, steeped 15 minutes in a mason jar and drank the tea throughout the day. By the following morning my urgency to urinate, pain and "awareness" of the discomfort I had been feeling had passed. I did it for one more day after to ensure it was really passed. This is one of the reasons I love folk medicine, for this week I also lost my health insurance, and I was able to provide for myself by looking to the wisdom of the people who lived here before. I harvested this mullein from my land and made it fresh. Bless this land. Bless these herbs.
There is a surprising amount of research done on this plant that verifies its ancient uses. In a study by Turker and Camper, aqueous Mullein leaf extracts were shown to be effective against gram positive and gram negative microorganisms, with the activity against Klebsiella pneumoniae rivaling that of the Erythromycin control (1). The use for external inflammation has also been discovered to be an action of the constituent verbascoside which is found in this powerful plant. In one study,
"K. pneumoniae and S. aureus showed sensitivity to the Mullein samples tested, which may explain why Mullein is used in folk medicine to treat respiratory disorders (caused by K. pneumoniae and S. aureus) and urinary tract infections (caused by K. pneumoniae). Our results confirm that the most effective preparation is an infusion (steeping in hot water) or decoction (boiling in hot water). According to McCutcheon et al. (1992), methanol extracts showed antibacterial activity against E. coli, Mycobacter phlei and S. aureus." (2)
I do so love when science, history, magic and medicine meet.
Mullein was a key ingredient in folk magic as well in Appalachia, just as it was in the Old World. If you bent a stick of mullein towards the house of the one you fancied, you could tell if they felt the same way about you by checking in a few days to see if it has grown up straight again. If it was standing tall again, your true-love loved you back, if it was dead, well, you get the picture. In the Ozarks it goes a little different. If the mullein bends towards a person's house, the one who tends the mullein loves them.
Mullein has many folk names, Aaron’s Rod, Blanket leaf, Candle wick, Torches, Quaker’s rouge, and Hedge or Hag Taper. Some say the folk name "Hag Taper" comes from its use by witches as candles for their rites, but this is a more modern practice as there is more evidence that the name may have come from the word "Hedge" rather than association with much witchery in the past. This plant often grew in hedgerows, or borders of wild plants between pastures in the British Isles.
The dried stalks dipped in tallow were used historically as torches for funerals in Roman times, so it does have links to death and the Otherworld. It has also been used to drive away evil in both Europe and Asia, it actually protects against magic as we can see in the tale of how Ulysses used mullein to protect himself against the wiles of Circe. You can also in the Anglo- Saxon version of Apuleius, translated by Cockayne,
“If one beareth with him one twig of this wort, he will not be terrified with any awe, nor will a wild beast hurt him, or any evil coming near.”
In Germany the Himmelbrand (heavenly fire), or Konigskerze (king’s candle) was used during the Rites of harvest times. In the Middle Ages it was said that Mary herlsef traveled through the land this time of year blessing all the mullein. This is where another name for it comes from, "Our Lady's Candle". A saying arose from this as well, “Our beloved Lady goes through the land, she carries mullein in her hand!” It was even said sometimes she touched the sick with the wand of mullein and healed them. From the excellent book Witchcraft Medicine we get the ritual involved in picking the Mullein and other herbs for use in the Rites of this time of the year:
The herbs for the August festival (Lammas) must be picked before sun rise by women barefoot, speaking the charms, silently and naked, without being seen and without thinking any thought. Never cut with an iron knife or dig with an iron spade, for it would take away the herb's power.
According to Frazer in The Golden Bough, it was passed through the Midsummer fire to make a charm to protect the cattle herd. It was also placed in butter churns in Ireland if the butter would not come. Mullein is so useful it has gained a host of astrological associations. Culpepper gave it Saturn, Agrippa Mercury, Junius gave it Jupiter and many today the Sun for it’s merry yellow flowers.
Mullein of course has many other useful purposes. It was used to dye ladies hair yellow in ancient Rome. It was also used as a fish poison in Germany and Britain for many centuries, a practice which followed settlers to Appalachia. There is scientific evidence that the seeds are narcotic to an extent and would cause breathing issues for fish, allowing fisherman and women to gather many at once. This practice was frowned upon by gentry and royalty as unsportman-like in Europe and a practice of common folk, but when putting dinner on the table is a life or death matter, than one does what one must. One old North Carolina resident said of his German forefathers, who immigrated in the 1720s:
"They'd heard 'bout the new land 'cross the waters 'n decided to bring thangs that'd help 'em git a start. Stinging fish was one easy way of gittin' food at first, so feltwort seeds were brung 'long".
Pennsylvania Germans used it to keep lice out of the pig stye as well. Not only did it keep away evil, it kept away pests. Aside from dipping the great stalks in tallow and make large, outdoor torches, the fluff was also used to twist into candle wicks. Hence another name for this lovely plant, Candlewick.
To Make a Mullein Leaf Candle for Necromantic Works:
Take a single Mullein leaf and when it is dry but not terribly crispy, roll it gently into a long tube. Dip this into beeswax or tallow and light. I stand them in sand in a fireproof bowl, like my cast iron cauldron. They are smoky, but the light and flame are lovely. Use these in Rites of the Dark year, or for spirit work.
To Make a Hag Taper:
Gather entire dried stalks and dip or brush with tallow or wax. Stand these in the same manner as mentioned above, in sand or drive into the ground away from flammables and watch carefully. As All Hallows approaches, imagine your Harvest rites lit by grand torches. It has quite an effect I think.
Kentucky Cold Remedy from Frank C. Brown:
Stew mullein roots, brown sugar or honey and wild cherry bark together for a half hour for coughs, add a bit of apple cider vinegar. Take 1 tablespoon no more than 3 times a day.
There is so much more to this plant. Poison seeds, healing leaves, flower and roots, a plant used to cure and kill, well fish at least. If this tickles your fancy come join us for the Poison Plants in Appalachia class October 18th here at the Hawk and Hawthorne. Bless the Harvest, Bless this Land. Stay well loves and keep the Old Ways.
Cavender, Anthony P. Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia. Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, c2003.
Cockayne, Thomas. translation of Herbarium Apuleii Platonici is online in Google Books Look for: Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: Preface. Herbarium ...By Thomas Oswald Cockayne, Sextus Placitus (Papyriensis.), Dioscorides Pedanius (of Anazarbos.) books.google.com search for felt wort. p. 177.
Foxfire Fund, Inc. Mountain Folk Remedies : The Foxfire Americana Library (9). Anchor, 2011.
Hopman Ellen, Evert. Secret Medicines from Your Garden Plants for Healing Spirituality and Magic. Rochester, 2016.
Larry W. Mitich. “Common Mullein: The Roadside Torch Parade.” Weed Technology, vol. 3, no. 4, 1989, pp. 704–705.
Lehner, Ernst, and Johanna Lehner. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees. Literary Tudor Publishing, 2011.
(1) McCarthy, Eibhlín, and Jim M. O’Mahony. “What’s in a Name? Can Mullein Weed Beat TB Where Modern Drugs Are Failing?” Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM 2011 (2011): 239237. PMC.
Moss, Kay. Southern Folk Medicine, 1750-1820. University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Riaz, Muhammad, et al. "Common Mullein, Pharmacological and Chemical Aspects." Revista Brasileira De Farmacognosia, vol. 23, 01 Nov. 2013, pp. 948-959.
(2) Turker, Arzu Ucar and N.D Camper. "Biological Activity of Common Mullein, a Medicinal Plant." Journal of Ethnopharmacology, vol. 82, 01 Jan. 2002, pp. 117-125.
Watts, Donald. Dictionary of Plant Lore. Academic Press, 2007.
White, Newman Ivey and Frank Clyde Brown. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore; the Folklore of North Carolina. Durham, N.C., Duke University Press [1952-64], 1952.
Wilhelm, Gene. “The Mullein: Plant Piscicide of the Mountain Folk Culture.” Geographical Review, vol. 64, no. 2, 1974, pp. 235–252.
Spicebush, or Lindera benzoin, is my favorite plant. I literally have no idea why. It's not especially beautiful, or magically potent in medicine, but its unique, delicious fragrance, flavor and brilliant, abundant berries makes it my favorite none the less. You can see my post from last year to learn more about the specifics and history of this lovely native plant, but quickly I'll highlight its magic.
Spicebush is in the laurel family, alongside another amazing native plant rich with lore and medicine, sassafras. Spicebush is dioecious, meaning it has male and female flowers on separate plants. It's unique, papery thin leaves ensure this understory plant can maximize its sunlight absorption.
Two nights ago, I learned that a person who was special in my life some years ago has left this Earth. It was a strange and hollow feeling. We had lost touch for a variety of reasons, and details aside, I was feeling very dark and introspective yesterday. As I've mentioned in the past, foraging and woods wandering is always my go-to when I feel darkness surround me. I used to share sweetness and foraging with this person. So when I saw the Spicebush berries hanging in huge abundance from the bushes in the forest near my home, I immediately knew what to do. This person and I used to live together, you see, at my old property, which we had all named Lindera after the robust spicebush population on our land.
I make Spicebush honey for many reasons, one being its great medicine for colds and flu, and heck, it tastes awesome. Somewhat spicy, orangey almost. You can use this honey to add to other medicinal teas, drizzle on hot cornbread, or just straight up eat by the spoonful when your feeling the need for a bit of warming fire.
First off. Place spicebush berries in a clean, dry jar. I add enough good vodka to the berries to lightly coat them when swirling the jar around before I add the honey. See above.
I like to rough the berries up a bit with a spoon. I smoosh 'em around to let that alcohol and honey soak on into the fragrant fruits.
Then I just plop that honey right on top. I use a local Haw Creek Honey because our bees need all they have to make it through the winter.
I stir it up to mix the alcohol and honey. I like to add a bit of alcohol when I use fresh herbs in honey, as there is always a risk of things going off if they have water content. I'll let this sit for about 3-5 days and then gently heat the jar in a water bath and strain out the berries. I like to use the left over, honey-covered berries in a short decoction to make spicebush chai tea. Recipe coming. Soon.
When I enjoy this honey in a few weeks. I will do so while thinking of my lost friend. I make this in honor of them. And I hope that they are in a place of peace and comfort after a long struggle. My struggle here is short and fleeting in comparison to what they went through, but these small comforts help warm my heart until it feels strong again. Hold your loved ones close, and let the plants and their magic hold you as well.
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