What’s That Weed? Common Mullein

My husband calls my sister and me “the weed sisters,” a name he came up with years ago when we all were biking together in Colorado.  Every time he turned around, we were nowhere to be found because we’d hopped off our bikes again to stop and examine some wildflower or other.  So he’d pedal back and say, “Looking at another weed?” and the Weed Sisters were born.

It really started earlier than that because my sister would drive to Colorado to meet us and she’d describe all the flowers she’d seen as she’d been whizzing by them at 70-80 mph.  So that’s partly why we were hopping off the bikes all the time–trying to ID the things at a much slower speed (And of course Colorado in the summer has gorgeous wildflowers).

So I thought I’d save some of you the trouble of trying to ID some of the most common summer weeds.  And some of these have great stories too.

This is common mullein, (verbascum thapsus) also known in Colorado at least as Miner’s Candle and camper’s toilet paper. There are a few other varieties of verbascum out there but they are all very similar to this one–tall yellow stalks of flowers in either single or multi-branched stalks.  The stalks can actually be quite dramatic and rise to 6-7′ even here in the east.

It has many herbal uses, but since the leaves are hairy they must first be denuded.  Its leaves are also used to soothe sunburn and other inflammation.

The name “miner’s candle comes from the practice of dipping the stalks in tallow and using them as a cheap form of lighting. Supposedly this practice goes as far back as Roman soldiers. Camper’s toilet paper is self-explanatory.

Native Americans and the Colonists used the furry leaves to line shoes as protection against the cold weather.

The plant itself is a bienniel–this is the first year’s growth.  It is only in the second year that it produces the dramatic spires of flowers so easily seen from the roadsides.

Although this photo doesn’t show it, bumble bees were all over most of these plants.  So although it is not a native, it is certainly attractive to our bees.

3 thoughts on “What’s That Weed? Common Mullein

  1. nu skin.2 July 30, 2010 / 8:16 am

    Sweet site, I haven’t noticed gardendaze.wordpress.com in the past in my browsing! Continiue the good work!

  2. Laurrie July 30, 2010 / 10:31 am

    I’m glad to find another mid-Connecticut garden blogger… I love these weed id profiles! I don’t know why, but I can’t abide the wild verbascum growing in our fields… I just don’t like them, and was appalled to find out varieties are sold in nurseries as ornamentals! The Queen Anne’s Lace, however, I think is lovely even if it isn’t native.

    • gardendaze July 30, 2010 / 10:54 am

      Thanks so much Laurrie! You know, I love verbascum, but much more in its wild form than in the watered down varieties at the nursery. And I do love Queen’s Anne’s Lace too. It seems to me that so long as weeds are kept under control while young (easier said than done sometimes I know) they are not a problem. And if all else fails, then there is always just the “chop off their heads until you starve them” method.

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