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!