Towering plant now in bloom is the common mullein

Published Oct 8, 2017 at 9:00am

A variety of wildflowers are blooming along the roadsides, in fields, along the forest edge, in woodlands, and yards. Some prefer shady sites others full sun, sandy to rich moist soils.

One can observe along the roadsides and fields the black-eyed Susan’s, Queen Anne’s lace, chicory, and milkweed to name a few.

We can learn much from wildflowers from history, origins, uses, benefits to nature, and how they fit in our ecosystems.  

A wildflower, herb/invasive weed that is seen towering 5 to 10 feet tall displaying small yellow colored blooms on flowering spikes kind looks like a torch is the common mullein.

The common mullein, Verbascum thapsus a biennial plant, it grows over two years.

The first season, it produces a low growing vegetative rosette up to 24 inches in diameter. It has felt like leaves that are grayish blue-green in color. During its second year, the plant produces a stout densely woolly stem topping off with a few flowering spikes. The flower spikes display five-petal yellowed flowers which bloom a few at a time throughout the summer months.

The plant will die after it ceases to bloom. The plant can produce 100,000 to 180,000 seeds which rest in wooly oval capsules. Once the air dries the seed capsules, it will split open allowing the seeds to disperse by the winds and wildlife. The seed(s) can remain viable, alive in the ground for over a century.

The common mullein is native to Asia and Europe. It came to America with our early settlers. It has been used over the decades as a medicinal herb to help respiratory and digestive aliments.  

The common mullein has a deep tap root and shallow roots that help to drain and ventilate the soils it grows in. It can be found growing in well-drained soils with a pH 6.5 to 7.8 and also in dry sandy soils in full to partial sun. One can view this plant growing in neglected meadows, forest openings, pastures, fence rows, roadsides, and industrial areas.

The leaves and stems of this plant contains tiny hairs like structures that give it the feel of flannel. These hairs help to protect the plant from animals and insect damage. But, slugs (mollusks) however have been reported to chew the leaves traveling upward on the stem. Also the dense hair like structures on the leaves and stem help protect the plant inside cell tissues from harsh sunlight and dust.  

Common mullein attracts birds such as the goldfinches and woodpeckers. They are often seen picking seed off the flower stakes. Hummingbirds also have been known to gather the flannel like hairs from the plant leaves to line their nests.

Common mullein is also referred as an invasive plant. That can grow to form a dense ground cover while displacing native plant species and grasses.  

One can control this invasive weed by using manual, chemical or biological controls. Manual – hand pull the plant before the seed sets, bag and dispose of. Herbicide applications can be made in early spring. Contact your local Extension office for chemical controls or look up online. Biological controls include the European curculionid weevil and mullein moth.

Come and view our monarch butterflies inside the Extension’s screened in Butterfly House that will be re-erected in the spring. The monarch caterpillars feasted on wildflowers the milkweed and swamp milkweed. We grew these wildflowers to help the monarch butterfly populations in a butterfly bed behind the screened in house and throughout the demonstration garden beds.

The Parker F. Scripture Botanical Gardens are located at the Oneida County Farm & Home Center, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County, 121 Second St. in Whitestown.