Plant of the Week
Latin: Verbascum thapsus
Weeds are the bane of a gardener’s existence, but sometimes even weeds can
have some interesting features. Most people with good judgment consider mullen a
weed, but I confess to allowing it to grow in my perennial border when it
happens to appear unannounced and uninvited amongst its more showy brethren.
Mullen is a biennial that grows only leaves the first year and then flowers
and dies the second year. During the first year, it can produce 18-inch long
wooly gray leaves that form a bushel basket-size rosette.
When it flowers in spring of its second season, the rosette stretches out and
forms a spike that grows 5 feet high. The spike will often branch at the top,
producing arms shaped like those of Saguaro cactus of the Arizona desert. Its
bright yellow flowers have five petals. It’s not obvious that the plant is a
member of the snapdragon family.
The common mullen is not native to the United States. It’s an introduced weed
from Eurasia. It was probably introduced during colonial times as a medicinal
herb. It’s leaves have been used as a wrapper – kind of a botanical version of
Saran Wrap – for keeping food from spoiling.
The monks of the Middle Ages grew mullen for a number of ailments, especially
those associated with coughs and congestion. One of its common names was
"bullocks lungwort," taken from a common home cure used to treat cattle with coughs and pneumonia.
Sap from the crushed leaves of the plant is said to alleviate the pain of insect
But what I find most fascinating about the common mullen is its desire to
live. Back in 1879, Professor William Beal (1833-1924), a botanist at the
University of Michigan, began an experiment that continues to this date. In the
fall of that year, Beal collected seeds of 23 common weeds and placed them in
sand in pint jars. The jars were buried on a sandy knoll in what today is the
five-acre W.J. Beal Botanic Garden. Originally, the jars were dug every five
years, but the number of jars began to decline, and now they’re dug up every 20
The most recent set of jars was dug up in 1999. Most of the seedlings that
emerged after 120 years buried in the cold Michigan soil were the moth mullen, a
closely related species, but the common mullen also made its presence known.
These tenacious seeds remained in a state of suspended animation for more than a
century, awaiting their day in the sun.
Most of Beal’s weed species were real wimps, remaining viable for only 20
years. Only five species managed to remain viable after 50 years.
Even if you don’t consider mullen a suitable garden plant, we can learn from
Professor Beal’s study. First, every shovelful of soil contains hundreds or
maybe even thousands of seeds, most of which are undesirable. Gardeners should
do all they can not to add to this collection by allowing weeds, or weedy
flowers, to go to seed.
Second, most of these long-lived weed seeds need light to germinate, so
applying a mulch as quickly after planting as possible will keep the seed in the
dark and reduce the amount of weeding that will be necessary.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension News -
May 18, 2001
Back to Archives A - D
Back to Archives M - P