Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 466-A   October 14, 1972
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F . Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Most of the plants we condemn as weeds are not native to America. More than a thousand kinds were introduced here, intentionally or unintentionally, from foreign lands. We intend to write a bulletin about that. One of the least troublesome, one of the most interesting, and one which you cannot fail to recognize because it is so "different", is Mullein. In England it is sometimes cultivated in gardens and called the Velvet Plant but it grows wild there and abundantly in southern Europe and Asia.

Mullein is a sun-loving weed commonly found on bare hillsides, worn out fields, closely grazed pastures, fence rows that are not too overgrown, and other waste places. It cannot stand much competition, even by grass, but prospers on dry poor upland soils: clay, gravelly or even stony ground. We carefully dug up a first-year mullein growing in an abandoned driveway. It had a stout taproot that penetrated through the crushed rock and cinders, mixed with a little dirt, into the subsoil; a few coarse lateral roots; and numerous rootlets. It was equipped to withstand a long drought and live through the coming winter.

Mullein is a biennial easily eradicated by cultivation in fields and gardens. It grows from seeds that are undigested and scattered by birds such as the goldfinch and sparrows, or those occasionally present in commercial seeds and chicken feed. The first year, it develops a rosette of soft flannel-like leaves densely covered with fine hairs. The outer ones are large, long, tapering and pale green. Toward the center they become smaller and smaller and more yellowish. Livestock will not eat those hairy felt-covered leaves and the rosette remains soft and green all winter.

In its second year the plant sends up a thick stalk, from 3 to 8 feet tall, clothed with woolly leaves. At the top is a long cylindrical spike crowded with buds, and its yellow flowers bloom in procession during late summer. It produces myriads of little black seeds. In autumn, mulleins are often infested with black thrips -- tiny sucking insects.

There are about 40 folk names for mullein. Flannel Leaf, Velvet Dock, Aaron's Rod, Peter's Staff, Candlewick, Torchwort and Big Taper are some of them. The stalk makes a good cane and, dipped in tallow, they were used as funeral torches in ancient Greece and during the Middle Ages. The Romans and, later, European peasants used the dried leaves, or hairs scraped from the leaves, to make candlewicks.

Although not officially recognized as a drug plant, mullein -- once thought to be a remedy for leprosy -- contains a mild narcotic and has been commonly used for home remedies such as a tea, from the leaves, for catarrh or as a sedative. People with asthma are said to find relief by inhaling smoke from the dried leaves. As boys, we used to smoke them and thought we were men. The velvety leaves cause dermatitis to some persons but country girls used to rub their cheeks with mullein to make them rosy.

The Moth Mullein, much different, grows in the same sort of places but is more common in eastern states. It leaves are smooth, with lobes and teeth along the edges. They are said to repel cockroaches and, in New England, .were packed among woolen garments to keep out clothes moths. The flowers, borne on a slender stalk about 2 feet tall, are yellow or white with violet centers and seem to attract night-flying moths -- hence the name.

Every tagline we thought of was too corny. Can you suggest one ?

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