Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Common Mullein

Earlier this summer I spent an afternoon at Shawnee Lookout Park (Hamilton County, Ohio) walking the Blue Jacket Trail. The trail is only 1.25 miles long, but it's packed with birds and offers two types of habitat, woodland and meadow. I knew it was going to be good birding when in the first meadow three Common Yellowthroats seemed to be teasing me. They'd fly out in the open for a second or two before ducking back in and hiding among the abundant wildflowers. One of the tallest and most striking of the wildflowers in the field offered a perch to the little birds, and with stalks that sprout beautiful yellow flowers and are over eight feet tall, I had to stop and take a closer look. The plant was Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). While the Common Yellowthroats continued to forage, sing and hide from me, I switched my camera's focus to the Common Mulleins...because the flowers stood still!

Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
Common Mullein was brought to the United States from Europe by the early settlers for medicinal purposes (often for lung and inflammatory ailments). It quickly naturalized and now covers all of the U.S. and southern Canada. Common Mullein is a "pioneer plant," so it is one of the first plants to sprout in disturbed areas.

...early settlers and Native Americans used the large velvety-soft leaves to line their boots and shoes for insulation and comfort.

...the leaves are often described as having the texture of felt or flannel, which accounts for many of its common names: Adam's flannel, beggar's blanket, beggar's flannel, blanket herb, blanket leaf, duffle, feltwort, flannel leaf, flannel plant, fluff weed, old man's flannel, Our Lady's flannel, rag paper, velvet dock, velvet plant, woolen, wooly mullein (source: Ohio Perennial and Biennial Weed Guide). It's scientific name also describes its soft leaves. "Mullein" is from the Latin "mollis," which means soft, and "verbascum" is thought to be from the Latin "barbascum," which means bearded plant.

Common Mullein has also been used through the centuries as an incendiary device -- its leaves for wicks and its stalks for torches, which explains another list of common names: big taper, candlewick plant, devil's-tobacco, hag's taper, hedge-taper, miner's candle, torches, torchwort, witch's taper (source: Ohio Perennial and Biennial Weed Guide).

...forming in those tightly closed buds are thousands of seeds. A single plant can produce between 100,000 and 180,000 seeds, and the seeds can lay dormant for over 100 years (click here for a pdf of "The 120-yr Period for Dr. Beal's Seed Viability Experiment," by Telewski and Zeevaart.) Dr. Beal started a seed viability experiment in 1879 to find out how long seeds of common plants could remain dormant. The study continues today through Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.

...the descriptive plaque at the Blue Jacket Trail trailhead. The small map shows where the fields are.

Over the years I've seen American Goldfinches glued to the stalks of Common Mullein in autumn and winter pecking out seeds, and occasionally in winter I've seen Downy Woodpeckers searching through the dried stalks looking for hibernating bugs, but I haven't seen many other birds using the plant. The story may be different in Europe and Asia where the plant originated.

When I started reading about Common Mullein, I had no idea its connection to humans would reach back to ancient times. People have been using the plant for centuries as medicine, magic, protection, to ward off evil, and to light the way. Even Aristotle got in on the action by noting fish were easier to catch after they ate the seeds, which contain a mild narcotic (click here for other facts and folklore). With the plant's ability to endure, it's no wonder Common Mullein has been connected to humans since ancient times!


Carol Mattingly said...

Unbelievable story Kelly. Had no idea a plant could even have that many seeds. Wow. And to lay dormant that long. Makes you wonder why. Great images. Carol

Bob Bushell said...

A lovely post Kelly.

Elaine said...

An amazing plant, one that I was not familiar with. It was a good choice to photograph the mullein since the little birds were intent on hiding. Your photos are supurb!!

TexWisGirl said...

beautiful shots. loved the use of the leaves as lining and insulation. :)

Elettra said...

these photos are really special !!!!!!

Lois Evensen said...

Fascinating images and so nice to learn so much about the plants.

Montanagirl said...

Terrific post Kelly! I didn't know anything about that plant. I always learn something new by following your blog. Amazing photos too.

Betsy Banks Adams said...

Hi Kelly.... That is just so interesting... It's amazing how our ancestors used so many things like those plants.... They were so clever. The leaves do look like velvet.... Awesome.

holdingmoments said...

Fascinating facts Kelly.
We have these towering at some of our roadsides here; and other areas.
So many names and uses for one plant.

Kelly said...

...thanks, everyone! These plants really are cool. I'm glad I blog, because I probably wouldn't have looked up information on them if I didn't. There's always so much to learn!

Anonymous said...

I love your close-ups!