Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is that tall fuzzy leaved plant that many people confuse with lamb’s ear. Once plants begin to flower, the two bear fewer similarities. Mullein has taller flower stalks with yellow flowers and those of lamb’s ear are pink to purple.
Mullein is a biennial well adapted to dry places. It forms a deep taproot and a basal rosette of leaves in its first year. In the second year it produces a copious seed on unbranched stalks that can sometimes be eight feet tall.
Mullein has no stolons or rhizomes, so reproduction is restricted to seeds. That said, individual plants can produce 100,000 seeds. These seeds can remain dormant in the soil for over 30 years.
When plants are in full flower they can be striking. However, their large size makes them awkward for use as ornamental plants. Also, they are biennals, which means they only flower in their second season. Large white furry leaves are attractive, but most people like to see flowers.
In pastures mullein plants are a problem, especially in dry years. Livestock won’t eat them, and plants tolerate drought much more than the desired forage. Consequently, a dense mullein population poses a real problem for livestock farmers.
I’ve always felt it’s important for livestock farmers to walk their pastures, especially in the spring. Noticing weeds like mullein early and treating them can pay dividends later in the season.
Numerous broadleaf herbicides are effective against mullein. However, the biggest problem is their fuzzy leaves. That thick pubescence forms a barrier, so chemicals often aren’t absorbed by the plant.
It’s critical that a detergent called a surfactant is mixed with the herbicide. This will break the surface tension and make the weed killer work better. For maximum effectiveness, plants should be treated when they’re young. Plants are less pubescent, and they can be killed before producing seed.
Is mullein all bad? Many herbalists don’t think so. Mullein has been used medicinally for centuries. It was initially brought to this country by early settlers as a medicinal herb to treat a plethora of ailments.
Compounds in roots, leaves and flowers are used to fight cold symptoms and as a cough suppressant. Some people even use preparations to address ear infections.
Mullein is often used to combat skin infection. Supposedly, it has antimicrobial and antiviral properties. It has even been used to fight the herpes virus. Mullein preparations can also be applied to the skin to treat wounds and burns.
While there is not enough concrete evidence to support all the copious claims, there are few documented side-effects either. I’ve also been unable to document any interactions to common medicines. Still, it’s best to consult your medical professional before self-medicating.
Interestingly, another common name for mullein is Cowboy Toilet Paper, because of its large soft and absorbent leaves. I suppose the leaves could be used for this purpose in a pinch, but some people are sensitive to the pubescence on the leaves. Campers with sensitive skin might not wish to chance it. Pack a little paper in your pocket.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.