Friday, November 26, 2010
By this time of year most plants have yielded to colder temperatures and shorter days and given up on photosynthesis. Not the Mullein.
Name: Mullein, pronounced to rhyme with sullen, is a plant with many names. Some of them like Adam’s Flannel, Old Man’s Flannel, Flannelleaf, Beggar’s Blanket, and Bunny’s Ears attest to the hairiness of the leaves. Others like Jupiter’s Staff, Jacob’s staff, Hag’s Taper, and Mule Tail refer to the tall flower spike. The leaves and flowers were stripped from the stalk which was then dipped in tallow, lit, and carried in processions as a torch. This was supposedly something done to repel evil spirits and witches, and also done by witches themselves.
There are over 200 species of Mullein – all members of the snapdragon family. This one, the Common Mullein, is Verbascum thapsus.
When and where found: There were some healthy Mullein plants at the edge of the parking lot at the Ski Touring Center at Great Brook Farm State Park last weekend. They are not shade tolerant so you will find them in open areas. They prefer dry sandy soils but can get by in a variety of habitats. The seeds require bare ground in order to germinate. They are often one of the first plants to show up in burnt-off areas. You are also likely to find them on roadsides, abandoned pastures, or recently disturbed ground.
Distinguishing characteristics: Mullein is a biennial; it lives for just two years. In its first year it grows a big rosette of gray-green hairy leaves on the ground up to two feet across. The next year, it produces a single flower stalk up to six feet tall clad with leaves. Yellow flowers less than an inch across open a few at a time along the stalk.
Alien status: Mullein was brought to America by the Virginia colonists in the mid 1700s and used as a kind of fish poison. The seeds seem to have a narcotic effect (at least on fish) that stupefies the fish and makes them easier to catch. There are also records of the plant turning up in Michigan in 1839 and on the Pacific coast in 1876. Different groups probably introduced it for various medicinal purposes. It is now naturalized. The web site for the National Park Service (nps.gov) links through to the Plant Conservation Alliance’s Working Group on Alien Plants which depicts it on a ‘least wanted’ poster. It does have the potential for becoming invasive because a single plant can produce well over 100,000 seeds which retain their viability for up to 100 years, but it has been in the country long enough to show its true colors as a reasonably well-behaved citizen in the global eco-system. If it should get out of hand, one of the recommended bio-controls is to seed the area with early emerging successional native grasses that will cover the bare ground required by the Mullein.
Contributions to society: The densely hairy basal leaves of the first year plant persist through the winter and provide shelter for insects. In the fall I have watched goldfinches clinging to the flower stalk while feeding on the seeds. I have also seen hairy woodpeckers pecking at the stalks. But the plant serves human purposes too. In earlier times, the colonials packed the wooly leaves into their shoes to keep their feet warm. The plant also has a long history as a treatment for respiratory problems. Coughs and asthma were treated by either smoking the leaves, or by taking a tea made from leaves or flowers. Numerous other wide-ranging curative properties are attributed to it in some herbals.
References: National Park Service website at www.nps.gov/plants/alien/fact/veth1.htm; Magic and Medicine of Plants, published by Reader’s Digest; Wyman’s Gardening Encyclopedia, Donald Wyman; Common Wildflowers of the Northeastern United States, Carol H. Woodward and Harold William Rickett.
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