Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) fresh leaf
Mullein is a hairy, flannel biennial plant (requiring two years to complete their life cycle) that can grow to 8 feet tall or more. Its small, yellow flowers are densely grouped on a tall stem, which grows from a large rosette of leaves. It grows in a wide variety of habitats, but prefers well-lit, disturbed soils, where it can appear soon after the ground receives light, from long-lived seeds that persist in the soil seed bank. It is a common weedy plant that spreads by prolifically producing seeds, but it rarely becomes aggressively invasive, since its seeds require open ground to germinate.
It is widely used for herbal remedies, with well-established emollient and astringent properties. Mullein remedies are especially recommended for coughs and related challenges, but also used in topical applications against a variety of skin problems. Pedanius Dioscorides first recommended the plant 2,000 years ago, against pulmonary discomforts and this has remained one of mullein’s primary uses, especially against coughs. Leaf decoctions or herbal teas were used for expectoration, consumption, dry cough, and throat challenges. Leaves were also smoked for pulmonary issues, a tradition that in America was rapidly transmitted to Native American peoples. The Zuni people, however, use the plant in poultices of powdered root applied to sores, rashes and skin matters.
The plant has also been used to make dyes and torches. For hundreds of years folks dunked the mullein plant’s stalk in tallow so it could be used as a torch or candle. The soft and hairy leaves of the mullein plant earned it the begger’s blanket nickname and made it a coveted possession when folks chose, or were forced to, sleep outdoors. The leaves of common mullein have also been used as toilet paper and were once placed inside of shoes to provided both warmth and softness.
Osha (Ligusticum porteri) dried root
Osha is strictly a mountain plant, requiring partial shade, and it is most commonly found in deep, moist soils rich in organic material. It is widely distributed in the Rocky Mountains and the high mountains of northwestern Mexico. It is most common in the upper limits of the subalpine zone, so in the southern part of its range, it grows at elevations from 7,000 feet to 10,000 feet.
Osha has the typical appearance of members of the parsley family, with parsley-like leaves and umbels of white flowers. The bases of the leaves where they attach to the root crowns have a reddish tint, which is unique, and the roots are fibrous, with a dark, chocolate-brown, wrinkled outer skin. When this skin is removed, the inner root tissue is fibrous and yellowish-white with an over-powering, pleasant "spicy celery" fragrance.
Osha plants form large clumps over time, and can grow to be very large. In areas of New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, Osha can reach heights of 6 to 7 feet and produce circular colonies with dozens of root crowns growing from a central root mass. Osha is best harvested in the afternoon as the plants are relished by bears, which are known to visit the plants during the morning.
Osha grows in the same habitat with Poison Hemlock and Water Hemlock, highly poisonous members of the same family. Osha particularly resembles poison Hemlock, but is easily distinguished from it by its "spicy celery" odor, hair-like material on root crowns, and dark chocolate-brown, wrinkled root skin. Hemlock roots are white and fleshy and thin-skinned; they are typically heavily branched rather than carrot-like. Unlike its poisonous cousins, Osha does not tolerate overly moist soils (because it depends on mycorrhizal fungi) and is never found growing in standing water. Nevertheless, Osha and poison Hemlock can be found only a few feet from each other.