St. Peter's Staff by J. Zane Walley

"Saint Peter's Staff!" the English immigrant shouted gratefully as he spied a rangy, woolen-like plant along the side of the trail. It had been a severe haul across the barren plains for the settlers' wagon train. Their exhausted oxen strained and sometimes died in harness as they began the steep climb over the West Texas Mountains. The plains had been void of vegetation familiar to the travelers. This was crucial and often fatal for the newcomers. The British and other settlers brought to America a rich legacy of herbal cures for man and beast. Removed from the lush lands and healing plants of their home countries, common afflictions and serious diseases had to be suffered without proper treatment. The discovery of "Saint Peter's Staff," or common Mullein, opened the doors to a sorely needed botanical pharmacy for them, their oxen, and horses.

Mullein1_WEB.jpg (11355 bytes)The plant called "Saint Peter's Staff" by the exhausted pilgrim was Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) a widely distributed plant, found throughout Europe including Britain, Ireland and the Channel Islands. Luckily for the pioneers, it also grows abundantly in the foothills of most American mountain ranges and into the upper elevation of the deserts.

Mullein was used, and is still employed, in Anglo, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American cultures to treat a surprising variety of infirmities. The humble plant is a superb expectorant, ointment, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, nerve tonic, astringent, and antispasmodic. It contains substances that stimulate the flow of mucus from the respiratory system, stop bleeding, prevent spasms, a vulnerary used in the treatment and healing of wounds, and an alterative. (An herb used to activate the body's defense mechanisms).

King's, a highly valued 1700's British herbal text says: "Mullein is demulcent, diuretic, narcotic, and antispasmodic. Besides, it is mildly nervine, controlling mild anger, and favoring sleep. Upon the upper portion of the respiratory tract, its influence is pronounced particularly where the larynx and trachea are involved. The infusion is useful in coughs, protracted colds, catarrh, bleeding, diarrhea, dysentery, and piles. It is applicable to dry, hoarse coughs, which occur chiefly at night, as well as to coughs associated with an abundant mucus discharge. Its' diuretic properties are rather weak, yet it is very useful in lessening the acidity of urine, which is present in many diseases.

A poultice of the leaves forms an excellent local application for inflamed piles, ulcers, and tumors. The leaves and pith of the stalk form a valuable dressing in white swellings, and when infused in hot vinegar or water it makes an excellent poultice to be applied to the throat in tonsillitis, malignant sore throat, and mumps. The seeds will rapidly pass through the intestines, and have been successfully used in intestinal obstructions. They are narcotic, and have been used in asthma, infantile convulsions, and to poison fish. The infusion may be drank freely."

Mullein was also known to Europeans as "Bullock's Lungwort." Coles, in Adam in Eden, (1657) says that: "Husbandmen of Kent do give it their cattle against the cough of the lungs, and I, therefore, mention it because cattle are also in some sort to be provided for in their diseases."

Before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans had used Mullein for many of the same diseases. The Atsugewis and Catawbas used it as an anti-rheumatic, cold remedy, dermatological, analgesic, infant, and pulmonary aid. The Cherokee Indians used it as did the Atsugewis and Catawbas but also found the plant useful in treating coughs, weak kidneys and colds.

Modern medical research bears out the folk use of Mullein. Its' constituents: Verbascoside, herperidin, saponin, tannin, and mucilage are used in many prescriptions and over the counter medications. It is a premium herb for the throat and lungs and can be consumed in any amount needed. It is a mild sedative to the lungs and it is especially desirable to use the tea during the early stages of colds and flu. Mullein is considered a specific in bronchitis where there is a hard cough with soreness.

A strong tea made from the roots (1/4 teaspoon in one cup of water) and drunk before retiring, will aid in bed-wetting and testicle irritation caused by alkaline urine.

Externally, an extract made in olive oil is excellent in soothing and healing for any inflamed skin surfaces or for easing earaches. Use equal volumes of the fresh flower and oil. Put in the sun or a warm place for three to four weeks, then strain, and bottle. Warm slightly and use a few drops for earache and pets with ear mites.

The chopped leaves may be smoked to relieve coughing in chest infections and asthma.

Collection: The leaves, flowers and roots are gathered between July & October during dry weather, and dried in shade or with very gentle heat. Once dried, promptly seal in a moisture-proof container. If brown with moisture, they become ineffective.

To prepare the tea, crush a tablespoon of dried leaves or flowers. Steep in sweetened water and drink as needed during the day. The tea must always be strained through a filter (coffee filters work perfectly.) to remove any small fibers that may be floating in the hot water, otherwise they cause itching in the mouth.