2016 January 9

While these photos were taken on August 19, 2015, you can find Common Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, pretty much any time of year.

This is an extremely distinctive plant. It grows in two stages. The first year, it forms this flat rosette of leaves, up to about a foot in diameter.

They are pretty easy to spot, because they are early colonizers of disturbed land. They are bad at competing with other plants, but they can grow very quickly in disturbed soil where there are few other plants present, like recent construction sites and freshly-logged areas.

The leaves, particularly the young leaves, are extremely soft and fuzzy. When the plant is wet, water tends to bead up on the fuzz.

While the first year is devoted to vegetative growth, the second year the plant really kicks things into overdrive and produces these enormous flowering spikes that can be 6 to 8 feet tall

The woods behind our house was logged a few years ago, making a perfect environment for mullein to temporarily take over. There are so many of them that it looks kind of surreal.

In spite of their size, the plants actually have very little in the way of roots, so that while we were out, Sam and Rosie were easily able to pull them out of the ground. They are stiff enough that they are suitable for jousting with, as the girls demonstrate here:

(after jousting, Sam noticed the hard way that the little hairs all over the plant come off easily, and are basically itching powder).

The flower spikes don’t bloom all at once, so for several months the plants are simultaneously blooming and setting seeds.

The flower spikes usually look kind of straggly because of the irregular and random blooming of the individual flowers, but if you look at the flowers themselves they are quite pretty.

Mullein plants are extremely prolific seed producers. When each of the little buds on the flower spike ripen, they will contain a few hundred little black seeds, each about the size of a grain of sand. And, the whole spike also has probably well over a hundred buds, so we are looking at somewhere around 10,000 – 50,000 seeds per plant. The height of the plant allows the seeds to scatter pretty widely as the flower spike sways in the wind. They are also small enough that they can get caught in the hair of animals that brush agains the plant. So between the sheer number of seeds and the ease with which they spread, these plants can colonize an area very quickly. The seeds also remain viable for a long time (reportedly up to 100 years), so they can stay dormant in the soil until some event occurs (like a forest fire or logging) that eliminates the competing plants. Then the new mullein plants appear in profusion, generating millions more seeds to wait for the next event that clears the area of other plants.

As one might expect given how common it is, mullein is not native to North America. It may have been brought over intentionally due to its use as a medicinal herb, although given the nature of the seeds it also could have easily been imported by accident. It’s not very ornamental, but it is related to a number of ornamental flowers like snapdragons.

One Response
  1. Katbird permalink
    January 9, 2016

    I found a pair of Phidippus audax (Bold Jumping Spiders) in Common mullein and Singer Lake in NE Ohio. She had folded a leaf over and may have been making a place to lay eggs. I have have seen very little Moth mullein, but it is pretty- a more delicate looking flower.

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