29 August 2022


I had vague hopes that this might be the tallest one in the history of the world, but such was not to be.  This stately fellow sprang up in a seldom-used corner of our back yard earlier this year.  We have previously had mullein appear in untended areas, and since we try to maintain a herbicide-free pollinator-friendly yard and garden, we have just watched them grow.  Earlier ones had topped out at about 6 feet in height; this one is almost 8 feet high this morning.  Herewith some interesting tidbits about the species:
Verbascum thapsus, the great mullein, greater mullein or common mullein is a species of mullein native to Europe, northern Africa, and Asia, and introduced in the Americas and Australia.

It is a hairy biennial plant that can grow to 2 m tall or more. Its small, yellow flowers are densely grouped on a tall stem, which grows from a large rosette of leaves. It grows in a wide variety of habitats, but prefers well-lit, disturbed soils, where it can appear soon after the ground receives light, from long-lived seeds that persist in the soil seed bank. It is a common weedy plant that spreads by prolifically producing seeds, and has become invasive in temperate world regions. It is a minor problem for most agricultural crops, since it is not a competitive species, being intolerant of shade from other plants and unable to survive tilling. It also hosts many insects, some of which can be harmful to other plants. Although individuals are easy to remove by hand, populations are difficult to eliminate permanently...

In the 19th century, it had well over 40 different common names in English alone. Some of the more whimsical ones included "hig candlewick", "Indian rag weed", "bullicks lungwort", "Adams-rod", "hare's-beard", and "ice-leaf". Vernacular names include innumerable references to the plant's hairiness: "woolly mullein", "velvet mullein", or "blanket mullein", "beggar's blanket", "Moses' blanket", "poor man's blanket", "Our Lady's blanket", or "old man's blanket", and "feltwort", and so on ("flannel" is another common generic name). "Mullein" itself derives from the French word for "soft". Some names refer to the plant's size and shape: "shepherd's club(s)" or "staff", "Aaron's rod" (a name it shares with a number of other plants with tall, yellow inflorescences), and a plethora of other "X's staff" and "X's rod". The name "velvet dock" or "mullein dock" is also recorded, where "dock" is a British name applied to any broad-leaved plant...

A given flower is open only for a single day, opening before dawn and closing in the afternoon. Flowers are self-fecundating and protogynous (with female parts maturing first), and will self-pollinate if they have not been pollinated by insects during the day. While many insects visit the flowers, only some bees actually accomplish pollination...

The seeds maintain their germinative powers for decades, up to 100 years, according to some studies. Because of this, and because the plant is an extremely prolific seed bearer (each plant produces hundreds of capsules, each containing up to 700 seeds, with a total up to 180,000 or 240,000 seeds), it remains in the soil seed bank for extended periods of time, and can sprout from apparently bare ground, or shortly after forest fires long after previous plants have died...

Roman soldiers are said to have dipped the plant stalks in grease for use as torches. Other cultures use the leaves as wicks. Native Americans and American colonists lined their shoes with leaves from the plant to keep out the cold... The seeds contain several compounds (saponins, glycosides, coumarin, rotenone) that are toxic to fish, and have been widely used as piscicide for fishing.
This was a serendipitous growth in our garden, but we were delighted one afternoon to see a local downy woodpecker emerge from the woods, and land on the raceme.  It then proceeded to work its way downward, pecking as it went, then shifted sideways and proceeded back up the raceme, retrieving either seeds or insects as it went along.


  1. Does your mullein have weevils? See "Munching on mullein" https://skeetmotis.blogspot.com/2019/07/munching-on-mullein.html for some photos. Their presence may explain why the so many seeds of mullein produce so few new plants? They are all eaten?

  2. When I was a kid and touched stinging nettles, I'd rub the area with a dock leaf while chanting "dock in, nettle out, dock rub the nettle out." I think I got that from Euel Gibbons.

  3. Rub the crushed hollow stem of jewel weed - you want the juice - on areas that have touched stinging nettle. In my case, the jewel weed happens to grow near the stinging nettle.

  4. Thanks for continuing to blog, long after I gave up the ghost. I have some of these growing out at our place in the strangest, most neglected places! Now I know what they are. :)

  5. I like this plant. I never heard about any people eating it. It has uses, it grows in disturbed places, it can take over a meadow. I treat it as a beneficial weed. This means i can use it, but they can be pulled up. It has something about it with the ancestors.
    I have seen it be invasive on overgrazed pastures.

  6. Replies
    1. So named for the reputed efficacy of the figwort branch of the family in treating scrofula.

  7. Check out the Beal Seed Experiment at Michigan State University. This study is likely the one that would be cited for this plant’s seed longevity and is really fascinating.


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