In 1860, William Darlington and George Thurber wrote, “There is no surer evidence of a slovenly, negligent farmer, than to see his fields over-run with Mulleins.” In 2017, I discovered several of the plants growing on the edge of my lot. Whoops!?
Darlington and Thurber explain that “this plant, although abundant in all the older settlements, is undoubtedly a naturalized foreigner.” They conclude that “it is a worthless, unseemly intruder, in our pastures and cultivated grounds.” But today, seeds for several showy varieties of this “unseemly” weed are available for purchase. And, mullein garlic ear oil is available for purchase online from mainstream pharmacy CVS.
I discovered it growing last summer along my lawn, and because of its fuzzy leaves thought it was lambs ear. But the plant is a biennial, and the “rosette” of silvery green hairy leaves is merely its first year’s produce. One must wait until the second season to see the reason the plant is sometimes called “Aaron’s rod.” In mullein’s second year, a semi-woody stem begins to tower over the rosette, and by mid-summer, small, bright yellow flowers emerge four to six feet off the ground, attracting all manner of pollinators.
According to C. S. Haughton, along with dandelion and plantain, mullein was brought to North America for herbal purposes by the Puritans in the first half of the 17th century. Maud Grieve described mullein’s British and Irish habitat as “hedge-banks, by roadsides and on waste ground, more especially on gravel, sand or chalk.” Then Grieve links the habitat of mullein to its design: “The leaf system is so arranged that the smaller leaves above drop the rain upon the larger ones below, which direct the water to the roots. This is a necessary arrangement, since the Mullein grows mostly on dry soils.” Grieve continues to explain that the thick, hairy leaves not only resist grazing, but also retain precious moisture. Because of this design, Seedaholic.com refers to the plant as “an engineering marvel.”
So in contrast to Darlington and Thurber’s conclusion, the plant had herbal and aesthetic appeal for at least a century before and after their analysis. But there are at least two non-herbal or aesthetic uses. First, the stalk of mullein, sometimes called “Candlewick Plant, can be used to start, or once dipped in fat, hold fire. It was used by Romans in torches. Second, the seeds can be used as a “piscicide” or a fish poison. The saponin content of the seeds disrupts the ability of the fish gills to use oxygen, and unconscious, stunned fish float to the surface allowing for easy collection.
In our side lot, in our first spring, we disturbed, but “negligently” did not cultivate the soil in the side lot. This allowed biennial mullein seeds, possibly lying latent in the soil for decades, to germinate and gain a foothold.
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Joshua Arp is an ISA-certified municipal specialist, Clarks Summit’s municipal arborist and an operator of an organic lawn and landscape maintenance business.