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COMMON MULLEIN
Verbascum thapsus

Other Names | Origin & Distribution | Plant Description | Similar Species | Biology | Toxicity | Facts & Folklore

Common mullein habitat. Common mullein plant starting to bolt; note very furry light green leaves. Common mullein seedling. Common mullein young rosette. Common mullein seeds resemble short corn cobs. Common mullein flower.

Family: Snapdragon Family (Schrophulariaceae)

Other Names: Aaron's rod, Adam's flannel, beggar's blanket, beggar's flannel, beggar's stalk, big taper, blanket herb, blanket leaf, bullock's lungwort, candlewick plant, clot, clown's lungwort, cow's lungwort, cuddy's lungs, devil's-tobacco, duffle, feltwort, flannel leaf, flannel plant, fluffweed, golden rod, great mullein, hag's taper, hare's beard, hedge-taper, ice leaf, Jacob's staff, Jupiter's staff, lungwort, miner's candle, mullein, mullein dock, old man's flannel, Our Lady's flannel, Quaker rouge, rag paper, shepherd's club, shepherd's staff, St. Peter's staff, torches, torchwort, velvet dock, velvet plant, white man's-footsteps, wild ice leaf, witch's taper, woolen, wooly mullein.

Origin and Distribution: Common mullein is a native of Eurasia that was brought into North America by early settlers. Once introduced, it apparently spread rapidly and was so widely established by the early 1800's that it was erroneously identified as a native species. Its present distribution includes all of the U.S. and southern Canada. Common mullein grows abundantly throughout Ohio. The weed is usually found in disturbed areas such as railroads, roadsides, fence rows, old fields, pastures, and agronomic fields. It prefers to grow on dry and stoney soils.

 

Plant Description: Common mullein is a biennial that forms a rosette of basal leaves during its first year of growth. Rosette leaves can be over a foot long and are densely covered on both sides with soft hairs. As a result, leaves feel soft and wooly like flannel. Each rosette produces a solitary, erect, 2- to 8-foot tall flowering stem. Leaves located on the stem are wooly but smaller than rosette leaves and instead of having leaf stalks (petioles), they attach directly to the stem such that their base continues for a distance down the length of the stem producing a winged appearance. The top of the flowering stem is densely packed with 5-lobed, saucer-shaped, sulfur-yellow flowers. The species reproduces by seeds.

  • Root system - Common mullein forms fibrous roots and a deep taproot.
  • Seedlings & Shoots - The first two leaves are paired and minutely-hairy. Later leaves are alternate (1 leaf per node), wooly, and attached by way of flattened, hairy leaf stalks (petioles). During the first year, plants form a basal rosette that can be 30 inches wide and consists of many wooly, light green leaves.
  • Stems - The flowering stem is erect, rigid, up to 8 feet tall, and covered with wooly, branched hairs. Stems appear winged due to leaf bases that extend longitudinally down the stem. Although stems are solitary, they may have a few upright branches near the top.
  • Leaves - Leaves are densely covered on both sides with hairs giving them a frosted appearance and a flannel-like texture. Rosette leaves are oblong, 6 to 15 inches long, rounded at the tip, tapered at the base, and attached to the compressed stem of the rosette by way of short petioles. Leaves located on the flowering stem are alternate (1 leaf per node) and resemble rosette leaves except they become smaller and more pointed as their location gets closer to the top of the stem. Rather than having petioles, stem leaves attach directly to the stem such that their base extends for a distance down the stem giving it a winged appearance.
  • Flowers - The sulfur-yellow (rarely white) petals are united at the base and deeply 5-lobed at the top forming a saucer-like shape less than 1 inch in diameter. The top of the flowering stem is densely packed with flowers, which lack stalks so they attach directly to the stem.
  • Fruits & Seeds - Fruits are downy capsules that are round and about 1/4 inch in diameter. Each capsule splits when mature into 2 cells filled with numerous tiny, dark brown seeds. The surface of each seed is marked with wavy ridges.
 
Similar Species: Moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria) is a related species that is also a biennial and similar in appearance to common mullein. However, moth mullein lacks the densely hairy foliage that characterizes common mullein. Also, it is a more slender plant, its leaves are toothed, and its flowers are not as densely packed on the flowering stem.
 

Biology: Common mullein blooms from June through September. Plants must reach a critical size before flowering is initiated, which normally occurs during the second year but may be delayed until the forth year of growth. An individual plant produces 100,000 to 180,000 seeds. Seeds have no special mechanisms for dispersal and usually fall close to the parent plant. Once buried in soil, they can become dormant and survive for years. In a study begun in 1879, common mullein seeds buried in soil remained viable for 35 years. Dense hairs on the leaves and stems tend to make the plant unpalatable to cattle and other livestock. The dense hairs may also inhibit moisture loss from leaves. Hairs covering the leaves can intercept herbicides and prevent them from entering the plant. Therefore, control measures other than chemical are often employed. Mowing can be used to inhibit flower formation, but if mowing is not repeated, then rosettes generally form another flower stalk. Cultivation is effective as a method of controlling common mullein. Also, various insects have been successfully used as biological control agents.
 

Toxicity: The hairy leaves and stems can cause contact dermatitis. Common mullein foliage and seeds contain a mild narcotic and may induce sleep if eaten in large quantities.
 

Facts and Folklore:
  • 'Verbascum' was likely derived from 'barbascum', which is Latin meaning bearded plant.

  • 'Mullein' is from the Latin 'mollis' meaning soft.

  • Leaves of common mullein have been used as lamp wicks and Romans used plants dipped in fat as torches.

  • Leaves of common mullein were placed inside shoes for warmth.

  • Quaker women, forbidden to use makeup, rubbed the leaves on their cheeks to give the appearance of wearing rouge. The hairs on the leaf caused an allergic reaction to the skin, thus turning the skin red.

  • Common mullein leaves and flowers have been used medicinally to treat various ailments such as lung diseases, diarrhea, colic, migraines, earaches, coughs and colds.

  • Aristotle noted that fish were easier to catch after eating common mullein seeds, which contain a mild narcotic.

  • A yellow dye made from common mullein flowers was used by Roman women to color hair.