mullein.greenway.jallen  Photo: J. Allen, UConn

 

Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is, well, common around here.  Right now it’s in its glory, with spikes of yellow flowers standing tall along roadsides and in other open areas.  I really thought this was a native plant, and when I spotted them along this paved trail in central Connecticut and decided to snap a few pics and do a blog on it this week, the idea was to share info on an interesting but often overlooked native.  As usual, I started reading up on it prior to writing and discovered that it’s not native to North America at all. This plants’ native range includes Europe, northern Africa and Asia.  It was introduced in North America very early in the 18th century and by the early 1800s it was widespread and reported as far west as Michigan in 1839 and California in 1876.  Today it is found in all 50 states and much of Canada.

A couple of states, Colorado and Hawaii, list it as a noxious weed. In most cases, common mullein is not considered an important agricultural weed.  This is because it does not compete well with other plants for establishment and is also not tolerant of tilling.  Seed germination occurs on pretty much bare soil, so disturbed areas are ideal sites for colonization.  Speaking of the seeds, they are impressive!!  One notable characteristic having to do with the seeds is the number of them produced by a single plant: 100,000-240,000 of them in a single season (number varies by reference)!  Not only are seeds produced in massive quantities, they can also remain viable and dormant in the soil for over 100 years.  This means that where this plant grows, a huge seed bank can rapidly accumulate.

First year rosette by John Cardina, The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org

Common mullein is a biennial plant that produces a large rosette of low-growing leaves in the first year and a single tall flower spike in the second year. Rosette leaves can be up to a foot long and are quite fuzzy.  Leaves on the lower part of the flower stalk are attached (no petiole), alternate and decrease in size towards the top.  Flowers are yellow, stalkless, one inch across, and have five fused petals.  Each flower only blooms for one day.  Flowers are produced on the stalk from June through August, or in some areas, September.  Seed capsules are fuzzy and split open at maturity to release as many as 700 or more seeds each.  Most of the seeds fall to the ground within a short distance of the parent plant but some are dispersed by animals, soil movement, etc. Very few animals are known to feed on the seeds, even birds, because they are so tiny.

mullein.flower.jallen  Flower close-up with Syrphid fly. J. Allen, UConn

This plant is a mixed blessing when it comes to the insects that it attracts. Some of them are pests that will also feed on plants in the garden or on the farm.  These include tarnished plant bug and spider mites. Others, though, like the Syrphid fly shown in the photo, are beneficial.  The larvae of the Syrphid fly are predators and will feed on aphids and other tiny, soft-bodied insects.

The reason this plant was introduced into the United States, and probably other areas of the world, is because it has well-documented medicinal uses. Disclaimer: This blog does not advocate the use of plants for these purposes unless a doctor is consulted. Because common mullein was introduced to the U.S. so early, it’s not known whether it was mostly shared with European settlers by Native Americans or the other way around.  A very early record of medicinal use was from Dioscorides about 2000 years ago for treatment of pulmonary diseases, especially coughs. Chemicals in the plant (and tea made from it) include expectorant saponins and emollient mucilage.  Any tea or extract made for the plant needs to be filtered well to remove the hairs that can cause irritation.  Leaves have also been smoked for pulmonary problems.

Some groups have also used a poultice from common mullein for treatment of skin conditions including sores, rashes, warts, hemorrhoids and more. Oil from the flowers has a history of use for many external issues, too.

Other interesting uses for the plant include piscicides (fish killing compounds), shoe insulation, candle wicks, and torches (made from the flower stalk by dipping into suet or wax). Piscicides have been widely used through history for fishing (the toxic chemicals in this case are from the seeds).  The flowers can be used as a source of natural yellow or green dye.

While not planted much in gardens, seeds are reported to be available from a few vendors. Because of the persistence of the seeds, it can be hard to get rid of when needed.  The best method is hand pulling but herbicides can also be used.  This will require some persistence due to the longevity of the seeds left behind.

To finish up, I’ll share some of the other, sometimes fun, common names of this plant: great mullein (commonly used in Europe), cowboy toilet paper (western U.S.), flannel mullein, velvet dock, woolly mullein, and in the 19th century U.S. Indian rag weed, hare’s beard, ice-leaf, blanket mullein, poor man’s blanket, shepherd’s club, feltwort, and Moses’ blanket.

J. Allen