Friday, April 22, 2011

Mulling Over Mullein

Mullein fascinates me. It has many "common" names, the most common probably being just Mullein or Wooly Mullein. To botanists it's Verbascum thapsus. It came to the USA from Asia, via Europe, quite possibly on the Mayflower, if not earlier. So, one strike against it: it's a weed. However, many medicinal and other uses are attributed to it, so it has its champions. I love the way it looks, and also its biennial life-style. A member of Family Scrophulariaceae, a family name I love to pronounce, its flowers are quite attractive and resemble those of Hibiscus and Monkeyflower, both of which are in the same family.
The other day I was photographing violets at the side of the road when I spotted the top and bottom images shown here. The top photo is what Mullein looks like in its first year. During the second year, a similar rosette of basal leaves gives rise to a stalk that is typically 5 to 6 feet tall by the end of summer, although I've seen some over 10 feet tall. Near the top a cluster of attractive yellow flowers blooms over quite a few weeks. At the end of the second summer, the plant goes to seed and dies, but the brown stalk may remain for several more years if not crushed by snow or other events. I saw one such stalk along Highway 89 on my twice-weekly drive to Greenville for two more years after its summer of blooming. It was hanging over Indian Creek, bent by snow, before it finally gave way. I missed it.
Besides the look of the plant in its various stages, I like how it brings out a range of attitudes in people that are a kind of barometer of our relationship with nature. I did a brief Internet search before posting these comments - can I call them mullings? - and found quite a range. Two samples reflect the range. The California Invasive Plants Council has an article that lists the many problems caused by Mullein and the many ways one can get rid of it. The lengthy article sounds a lot like a description of what's going on in Libya except no human blood is being shed. On the other end of the spectrum, which is where I reside, there's a nice article in the Carrboro (NC) Citizen titled "Can't Say Enough About Mullein." I recommend it.

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