great mullein defined in 1913 yeargreat mullein - Great mullein (Verbascum thapsus);
great mullein - "Hedhe taper," "High taper," "Hig taper," Hag taper," "Our Lady's Candle" - the names of the country-side all give the keynote to the Mullein's character - "the whole top with his pleasant yellow floures sheweth like to a wax candle or taper cunningly wrought" - and on the lane borders, among the dark nettles and woundworts, the pale spikes light up wonderfully the still darker hedgeside in late summer days. All the first four synonyms are derived from the Anglo-Saxon hege, or haga, a hedge, and "Hig" and "Hag" have really nothing to do with witches in spite of the popular idea (obtained from the name-corruption) that the Mullein was the witches' taper. No doubt the name "Taper" was largely due to the resemblance mentioned by Lyte as above, but it has a double appropriateness for, as Parkinson tells us, "Verbascum is called of the Latines Candela regia and Candelaria, because the elder age used the stalks dipped in suet to burne, whether at funeralls or otherwise," and Gerard, in his "Grete Herball," also remarks that it is "a plant whereof is made a maner of lynke (link), if it be talowed." "Our Lady's Candle," or now "Lady's Candle," recalls the fact that in the days from which this name has been handed down to us every church had its candles burning in front of the shrine of the Madonna. (But if the Great Mullein suggests a single, tall candle, in what a magnificent and elaborate way does that other wild but far rarer Mullein - the Hoary Mullein (Verbascum pulverulentum) - carry out the candlestick suggestion? On chalk or sand, in Norfolk or Suffolk, one may find it as tall as oneself, a candelabrum of many branches, branches frosted with thick, silvery hairs, each branch tipped with pale yellow flowers, the whole a model of such stately symmetry and beauty that it stands unrivalled in our whole British flora.)
In the Great Mullein a solitary, stiff, pale stem rises from a rosette of thick, flannel-like leaves; its fibres are tough and strong and enclose a thin rod of white pith. Its rigid uprightness accounts for the plant's names of "Jupiter's" or "Jacob's Staff," "Aaron's Rod," and "Shepherd's Club." All the way up it is hugged by stalkless, thick, woolly leaves, leaves which indeed have their midrib from a quarter to half-way up the blade actually joined to the stem.
Their woolliness is caused by the whole leaf, back and fore, being covered with white hairs; under a lens one can see that each hair is branched, "reminding one of tiny fir trees," and this, of course, makes for thickness of felting. They are very easily detachable and, in fact, in the Hoary Mullein they often lie almost like meal upon the leaf surface. In several ways they are of great use to the plant. They are a protective coat, checking too great a giving off of the plant's moisture; conversely, too, they will not "wet" - rain and dew run off them - and thus the water pores, or stomata, lying in the epidermis beneath them, are left unclogged and can perform their due measure of transpiration, or giving off of watery vapour. Further, they are a definite weapon of defence, for they set up an intense irritation in the mucous membrane of any grazing animals that may attempt to browse upon them, and hence the plants are usually left severely alone by them. Those folks addicted to Mullein tea - and it is a homely remedy of the greatest antiquity for coughs and colds - well know how necessary it is to strain through fine muslin the hot water that has been poured over the flowers, so as to remove any hairs that may be floating in it. If not removed one pays the penalty with an intolerable itching of the mouth. This woolliness of the leaves is responsible for still other synonyms for the plant, such as "Old Man's Flannel," "Adam's Flannel," "Our Lady's Flannel," "Beggar's Blanket," "Hare's Beard," and "Fluffweed."
Towards the top of the stalk the much-diminished leaves merge into the dense flower-spike. The flowers, too, are stalkless, and each is enclosed in a woolly calyx deeply cut into five lobes. The corolla, a somewhat irregular cup, is formed of five petals which are free above as five rounded lobes, but united at the base to form a very short tube. Their golden colour led to their being used to make a hair-wash for those fair ladies who desired golden locks; thus Lyte tells us, "The golden floures of Mulleyn stiped in lye, causeth the heare to war yellow being washed therewithall." The stamens stand on the corolla; there are five of them, three shorter than the other two, and these three have a large number of tiny hairs on the upper part of their filaments. It is supposed that these hairs, turgid and full of sap, are offered as delicate baits to the insect world, and supplement in this fashion the allurement of the honey that lies round the base of the ovary. These three stamens have only short, one-celled anthers; the two longer stamens have larger anthers. As the anthers open they disclose an orange-red inner surface. The ovary is rounded and hairy; hairs, too, appear on the lower part of the style, though the upper part is smooth; the stigma is slightly bifid.
Since the flowers are vertical the larger side of the petal-cup forms a platform for insects to alight on, while all five stamens are above the style. All kinds of insects are attracted by this plant, flies as well as bees, since the honey and the staminal hairs are both so readily accessible. The stigma is mature before the anthers have opened their red-lined pollen-sacs, and the style projects at the moment the flower opens, so that any kind of insect approaching it must needs strike it before entering. Cross-fertilisation, therefore, seems practically inevitable in these early days of the flowers' short existence. When the anthers are beginning to open the style falls either downwards or sideways, so there is a clear passage to the newly discharged pollen. Probably part of it at least is now carried away by the visitors. Then, as the flower ages, the stigma is raised once more into its old place, the stamens curl over and press their anthers towards it; the petals, too, close up and tend to bring the two together, and so there is opportunity given for self-fertilisation to remedy any miss in the scheme of cross-fertilisation. The seed-capsule is very hard, and contains many seeds, which eventually escape through two valves.
This Mullein is a biennial, so it takes two seasons to bring it to maturity. It belongs to that remarkable family, the Scrophulariaceæ, which embraces members so diverse as the foxglove and the speedwell, the Mullein and the toadflax, as well as that quaint series of semi-parasites, the eyebrights, the bartsias, and the louseworts. Six species of Mullein are found in this country, some with white flowers and some with yellow. The Great Mullein is easily distinguished from among them by the already-mentioned union of the leaf-surface with the flower-stalk. Its flowering period is in July and August. As a curative agent the Mullein stood in the past in the front rank. A decoction of its roots was one of the thousand and one alleviations our ancestors attempted for toothache; a matutinal draught of the distilled water of the flowers was most excellent for gout; Mullein juice and powder made from the dried roots rubbed on rough warts quickly removed them, though one's labour was wasted if the warts were smooth; a poultice made of the seeds and leaves with hot wine "draw forth speedily thorns or splinters gotten into the flesh," and so on, practically ad infinitum. Even the lower creation was not forgotten in its remedial power, as its name, "Bullock's Lungwort," implies; and Coles, in 1757, remarks that "Husbandmen of Kent do give it their cattle against the cough of the lungs," and this pioneer of veterinary science adds, "And I, therefore mention it because Cattle are also in some sort to be provided for in their deseases." But that virtue does really reside in the plant is shown in that it has stood the test of these days of science, and is still found taking its place in the British Pharmacopoeia.
As for the word Mullein itself, Dr. Prior finds an interesting history for it. It was "Molegn" in Anglo-Saxon days, and "Malen" in old French, derived from the Latin malandrium, i.e. the melanders or leprosy: "The term 'malandre' became also applied to diseases of cattle, to lung diseases among the rest, and this plant being used as a remedy acquired its names of 'Mullein' and 'Bullock's Lungwort.'"
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