When we talk about herbalism being the "people's medicine", we often consider the fact that herbal based medicines are generally easy to come by, inexpensive if you have the ability to make your own, and accessible to individuals from all walks of life due to the fact that these remedies grow in nature. However, part of the history of the "people's medicine" is often forgotten when we consider its foundational impacts on modern western medicine. Not only is herbal medicine the "people's medicine" it is also the foundation and backbone for modern pharmaceuticals, medical practice, and constituent based over the counter remedies. If we look back to the turn of the 19th and 20th century and explore the common medical practices and pharmacology books of the day, we see a tremendous amount of similarities of use and applications with modern clinical herbalism. This is because until the midspan of the industrial revolution, and until science was able to divide and concentrate individual chemical constituents from plants, herbal medicine was the primary medicine for medical physicians across the world. Indeed, nearly 90% of all of our modern pharmaceuticals has its 'roots' in plant based chemicals or whole plants.
To explore this, we've taken this opportunity to share two antique books which were brought us by two of our HWB members. Jocelyn Blanco who was kind enough to share her book "The Complete Herbalist" from 1882, and Petra Sovcov from her "National US Dispensatory" from 1879. These two books were commonly used by physicians, pharmacists, and those seeking home based medicines at the time.
In the following information we have separated the two so you can see how Verbascum thapsus (Mullein) was discussed and its uses described. Can you see any similarities between these antique texts and modern uses? Have you noticed any differences? We would love to know what you think, feel free to comment below.
The following information is not meant as treatment or replacement of medication or suggestions made to you by your medical doctor. Some information from historical texts may be outdated and certain constituents may be dangerous or toxic. The following information is for education only.
The Complete Herbalist 1882
MULLEIN (Verbascum thapsus)
Medicinal Parts: The leaves and flowers.
Description – This biennial plant has a straight, tall, stout, woolly, simple stem. The leaves are alternate, oblong, acute, and rough on both sides. The flowers are of a golden-yellow color; calyx, five-parted; corolla, five-lobed; stamens, five; and fruit, a capsule or pod.
History — Mullein is common in the United States, but was undoubtedly introduced from Europe. It grows in recent clearings, slovenly fields, and along the side of roads, flowering from June to August. The leaves and the flowers are the parts used. They have a faint, rather pleasant odor, and a somewhat bitterish, albuminous taste, and yield their virtues to boiling water.
Properties and Uses — It is demulcent, diuretic, anodyne, and anti-spasmodic, the infusion being useful in coughs, catarrh, bleeding from the mouth or lungs, diarrhea, dysentery, and piles. It may be boiled in milk, sweetened, and rendered more palatable by aromatics, for internal use, especially bowel complaints. A fomentation of the leaves in hot vinegar and water forms an excellent local application for inflamed piles, ulcers, and tumors, mumps, acute inflammation of the tonsils, malignant sore throat, etc. A handful of them may be also placed in an old tea pot, with hot water, and the steam be inhaled through the spout, in the same complaints.”
The National US Dispensatory 1879
Verbascum. - Mullein
Molene, Bouillon-blanc, Fr.; Wollkraut, Konigskerze, G.
Verbascum thapsus, Lin., and other species of Verbascum.
Nat. Ord. - Scrophulariaceae.
The genus Verbascum consists of tall, more or less woolly, biennial or perennial herbs, with the flowers in dense spikes or paniculate racemes. The flowers have a five-parted calyx, a wheel-shaped somewhat unequally five-loved corolla, five more or less woolly stamens, and a two-celled, two-valved, and many-seeded capsule. Three species, Verb. blattaria, Lin., V. lychnitis, Lin., and V. thapsus, Lin., have been naturalized to North America; of these, the last one only is medicinally employed; and, in Europe, the leaves and flowers of two allied species V. thapsiforne, Schrader, and V. phlomoides, Lin., are likewise collected.
FOLIA VERBASCI.- The leaves are from four to eight or twelve inches long, the upper ones sessile, on the stem and all decurrent. They vary in shape between elliptic, oblong, and oval-lanceolate, are acute, more or less crenate on margin, and densely covered with soft whitish stellate hairs. The leaves are nearly inodorous, and have an insipid mucilaginous, faintly bitter tastes.
FLORES VERBASCI, P. G. - The calyx is rejected, and only the corolla with the adhering stamens is preserved. The wheel-shaped corolla is one or one and a half inch broad, bright yellow, has five obovate roundish lobes, and bears in the short tube the stamens, of which the three upper ones have the filaments covered with a white wool; the two lower stamens are longer and smooth, and have elongated decurrent anthers. To preserve their bright color, the flowers should be thoroughly dried and kept in a dry and well-stopped bottle; if permitted to become damp, they acquire a blackish color. The flowers have a slight agreeable odor, and a mucilaginous and sweet taste.
The leaves and flowers contain mucilage. Morin (1826) obtained from the flowers trace of yellowish volatile oil, a fatty substance, sugar, and coloring matter which is insoluble in either and cold water, and yields in alcoholic solution a yellow precipitate with acetate of lead.
Medical Action and Uses:
The chief medicinal constituent of this plant is the mucilage furnished by its leaves; but its flowers contain an essential oil, in small proportion, to which the agreeable odor of the fresh plant and its slightly stimulant qualities are due. Fish are said to become stupefied by eating its seeds. The infusion of mullein is useful in catarrhal affections of the respiratory organs and the bowels, and in irritations of the urinary bladder. It may be used by enema in dysentery. A poultice made with the leaves boiled in milk is a convenient application to inflamed hemorrhoids. - Olive oil saturated with mullein flowers during prolonged exposure to the sun, or kept near a fire for several days in a corked bottle, is a popular preparation in Germany for bruises, frostbite, and irritable piles. The infusion should be made of the fresh leaves and flowers, if possible, in the proportion of an ounce to a pint (Gm.32 to Gm.500) of boiling water. When cool it should be strained to free it from the irritating hairs which cover the leaves.
Jocelyn Perez-Blanco, Founder of Herban Garden, is an educator, a local herbalist, naturalist, conservationist, Flower Essence Therapist, and avid gardener with a background in biology, animal husbandry, ethnobotany, reforestation, and agriculture. She works as a consultant for everything from incorporating herbs into your life to tending to your houseplants and outdoor gardens. Her classes have recently been featured in The New York Times.
Find her at: https://www.herbangarden.eco/ and as Chapter Coordinator at HWB Queens, https://www.facebook.com/HWBNYCQueensChapter.
Petra Sovcov is a faculty member at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition Nutrition, a new member on the HWB Board of Directors, and has been a member of HWB since 2014. She currently runs the HWB Mahonia Chapter for the greater Vancouver BC area and coordinates the community free clinic. She is also the owner of Healing House Natural Wellness Centre, a multi-modality center located in BC Canada. For more info please visit the site, or follow her on Instagram @healinghouseherbal
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