Nature Nut: Tall, spiky mulleins an invasive with no downside

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Two Mullein plants that could end up as eight footers.

I've done two columns over the past month on plants without being "taken to the cleaners." So, even though my thumb still isn't green, I will give another one a try.

For those unaware of this plant, now is the time to look for them. Mullein, pronounced "mullen," is a biennial plant that came over with European settlers.

However, unlike wild parsnip, Queen Anne's Lace, buckthorn, and garlic mustard, I don't think this invasive has much of a downside. I actually like seeing mullein in late summer, with their tall spiky flower stalks. And, given that it is a good nectar source for our valuable pollinators, I take exception to those who would call it a weed.

Mullein is evident in fields and road ditches where Queen Anne's Lace and wild parsnip are not dominant. Instead of hundreds of plants like those two, there may be a few dozen mullein at any given sight. It does not compete well with other plants, so it is usually found in disturbed soils and, over a short period of time, often yields to other plants.

The first year of mullein growth is a ground-hugging cluster of large, thick velvety leaves. It's the second-year growth that is pretty hard to miss this time of year. Each plant produces tall, stiff stalks, some with side branches, and others almost straight up to a height that I suspect might approach 9 feet. The stalks are covered with dozens of small yellow flowers, all of which do not bloom at the same time.


In researching mullein, I found it has a pretty interesting reputation. Many sites mention in detail the medicinal value of the plant as a type of herb. I can't attest to that either way, but it sounds credible.

The one use I heard about years ago was of Native Americans who would line their moccasins with the soft leaves. And the leaves, also supposedly used as toilet paper, undoubtedly would have been better than the elm leaves I tried at Camp Hok-Si-La 55 years ago.

But, for me, the most intriguing use I found on a few sites was the use of mullein seeds to temporarily paralyze fish, causing them to surface and be easily retrieved. Some sites just say grind up the seeds and spread them out over calm water, with another suggesting putting seeds in a ball of bread to feed to the fish. I have a friend who offered to let me experiment with it on his goldfish pond. If I do, I will report the results in a future column.

Each of the hundreds of small seed pods can produce hundreds of seeds, possibly leading to up to a quarter-million seeds produced by some plants. Those with the side branches are the highest producers. Seeds are dispersed in late fall when the stiff stalks sway in the breeze and release them to nearby soil.

Equally interesting about the seeds is that experiments have been done indicating they can germinate after a hundred years in the ground. In Denmark, a mullein seed germinated from an archaeological soil samples dating to 1300 AD.

Keep your eyes open for mullein on your road trips over the next couple months. And, if you should be the first person to alert me about an especially tall one, 8 feet or taller, Nature Nut will give you a $25 gift card to Olive Garden. (Be sure to be careful pulling over to get a closer look.)

The catch is you have to send me a digital picture of a child or grandchild next to the plant, and give me the location so I might check it out. Best chance for finding a winner will be in a month or so, but scouting now for the "Monster Mullein" would be wise, so good luck!

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