ALL PRAISE THE GREAT MULLEIN

We bought our land the weekend before Thanksgiving, and the next summer I walked around with big eyes watching to see what would come up.  In a handful of places I saw a single tall, plant.  On the edge of a meadow.  By the side of our main trail where there was a little erosion.  In the shadow of the new barn.

Mullein up close and personal. (photo credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/postbear/5924516654/

It seemed  majestic towering above the other plants, so solitary with its torch of tiny yellow blossoms.  I hoped it was a native prairie plant.

Now I know it is Mullein Verbascum thapsus.  It’s not a native.  Europeans brought it with them in the early 18th century for it’s medicinal properties to treat various ailments such as lung diseases, diarrhea, colic, migraines, earaches, coughs and cold.

It has long been a useful plant.

  • Romans dipped the dried stalks in fat and used it for torches.
  • Roman women made a yellow hair dye from the flowers.
  • It’s fuzzy leaves were placed in shoes for insulation.
  • Quaker women,  who weren’t supposed to use makeup rubbed it on like rouge because an allergic reaction to its hairs put roses in their cheeks.
  • It also has been used to slow down fish and make them easier to catch.

Mullein took well to the New World.  It was reported in Michigan by 1839 and was found in California just 40 years later.

A single plant can produce 240,000 seeds, and those seeds can live in the soil for many decades.

Still it doesn’t seem like a dangerous invasive.  93 percent of those seeds fall within 15 feet of the parent stalk.  It prefers bare and disturbed soil that is dry, sandy or gravelly, and just about every other plant out competes it.  I certainly haven’t seen it taking over on our land the way wild parsnip and Queen Anne’s Lace and other plants do.

Mullein loves disturbed ground. (photo credit: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1471895 )

I like it.  It’s tall stalk is covered with delicate flowers, but each one opens only for a single day, opening before dawn and closing in the afternoon.

I’m not going to let it grow near my garden.  Many insects love it, and some of them are not welcome in the garden.  It has been know to harbor the cucumber mosaic virus, Erysiphum cichoraceum (the cucurbit powdery mildew) and Texas root rot

Nobody’s perfect.   You can tell how intensely humans have interacted with mullein because of all it’s names: Adam’s Flannel, Beggar’s Blanket, Candlewick Plant, Common Mullein, Flannel Mullein, Flannel Plant, Hag’s Taper, Jupiter’s Staff, Molene, Mullein, Velvet Dock, Velvet Plant, Woolly Mullin

Both in Europe and Asia Mullein was once credited with the power to drive away evil spirits .   Passing it sure brightens my day.

I think Mullein is my favorite weed.

What’s yours ?

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10 replies

  1. My favourite weeds are nettles. They are a good source of nutrition, and I shall be drying some for winter use from the ones that are regrowing after cutting. I shall also be taking up the roots to dry for their medicinal properties and at some stage I am going to investigate their properties as a source of fibre.

    • I must be extremely sensitive to nettles. Just thinking about them makes my skin prickle. When I brush up against nettles, it stings for hours. And last winter at a cheese tasting, I tried some nettle cheddar after being assured that it would no longer have its stinging property. My tongue went numb, and I couldn’t taste any more cheese at the event.
      So I’m glad you find them useful. I have heard of nettle tea having medicinal properties, but for me, they are bad medicine.

  2. I have to disagree! Wait a few years, you’ll see them coming up all over. Yes, it’s a nice-looking plant but it gives out a lot of seeds and a few of them will come up next year, each of those plants will produce a few additional plants th following year. It is, in fact, a fairly aggressive invasive. In a couple of years you will be cussing as you try to pull them out.

    Enjoy it while the flowers bloom, but then cut it down before it goes to seed. You’ll be sorry if you don’t. I speak from sad experience.

  3. Wow, Dennis. Now you have me worried. I haven’t had that experience yet. In 7 years on our land there are only a handful every year, and this year their numbers are down.
    Just yesterday I was using some straw from a neighboring farmer to mulch in our new drainfield and shaking straw lightly over the seed. All of a sudden, there was a dried mullein stalk in the middle of the bale! I know they produce an awful lot of seed. Your advice sounds good.

  4. I’ve only begun to go through the weath of information that is contained here and I can say right now. Thank you. This is a very motivating and exciting blog and I’m looking forward to learning from you and applying as much as I can to our situation just across the river. I love the name BTW. I’m a driftless area trout angler (on my side of the Mississippi) and so the Driftless name holds added weight with me.

    -justin

    • Thanks for your kind words, Justin. There is something about the Driftless Area that connects all of us who love it.
      I’m looking forward to following your adventures. Bummer about the tomatoes.

  5. Do you have any Garlic Mustard to deal with? As a trout angler I’ve noticed more and more of that stuff along our creeks over here. It’s worrysome. Maybe Garlic Mustard is an entire post of it’s own. Anyways, that was my after thought.

    -justin

    • Garlic mustard is everywhere around here, but we have only one small spot about 20 feet square on our land that I am trying to erradicate by hand. I hate to use herbicides. If you search for garlic mustard on my blog, you’ll see what I’ve tried. It’s particularly bad because it kills the fungi in the soil, which gives it a great advantage over plants that need fungi (practically all of them), so it is toxic and poisons the area it takes over.

  6. How bizarre, I haven’t had a problem with nettles at all after they are dried or used in cheese. You must be hypersensitive to them.

    We have mullein too on our land and it hasn’t taken over. Mind you I think they are native to the area anyway. It is still the ground elder that makes our life a misery but we have kept it cut this year in places and the grass seems to be fighting back. Hopefully another year will sort it out. Such a shame when it actually tastes quite nice in spring but you can have too much of it for eating.

  7. Ground elder is a new one to me, Joanna. Now I’m going to have to see if it is a problem here and start watching for it.

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