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Mullein is unmistakable when it is in flower, with its spires of yellow flowers on a spike reaching six feet tall. It likes disturbed ground and dry soil, often growing on roadsides.

The flowers, infused in oil, are a remedy for earache and other nerve pain. The leaves and flowers taken as a tea relieve dry irritable coughs. Mullein, so supple and strong itself, has an affinity for the spine and helps in setting bones.

Mullein has a long history of use in Europe, and has been attributed magical powers in several mythologies. Almost three thousand years ago, according to Homer, Odysseus used the root of moly, which was probably the white mullein, as a protection against the enchantments of Circe. Odysseus was lucky to have the help of Hermes, for, in Homer's words, "it was an awkward plant to dig up, at any rate for a mere man. But the gods, after all, can do anything."

There are records of the long stalk of mullein being dipped in tallow and used as a taper by Roman legionaries and in medieval funerals. It also has a reputed association with witches' covens, recalled in the common name hag's taper.

Mullein leaves have made a natural toilet paper, diapers, food wrappers, and soothing insoles for shoes - all possible emergency uses today. Despite their softness, however, mullein leaves can be irritating when dry because of all their little hairs. It is this attribute that gave the plant the name of Quaker rouge, as Quaker girls were said to redden their cheeks by rubbing the leaves on them.

A cure for hoarseness, with mullein and fennel in equal parts, cooked in wine, goes back to Hildegard of Bingen in the 1100s.

John Parkinson (1640) recommends a decoction of the leaves with sage, marjoram, and chamomile (applied externally) for cramps. He mentions that country men gave a broth of mullein to cattle that had coughs and used a poultice of the leaves for horses' hooves injured in shoeing.

A Victorian doctor, Dr Quinlan, publicized a traditional Irish TB treatment in which one handful of fresh mullein leaves was boiled with two pints of milk, strained and sweetened with honey; the mix was to be drunk twice a day.

Mullein is an herb for the lungs and throat and can be consumed in any rational quantity needed, being basically free of toxicity.

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