Dear Readers, this is a common plant that has evaded me since I started the blog back in 2014. Much as people are always telling me that I should have been on the Heath last week when it was full of Reed Warblers, or that if only I’d been around yesterday I’d have seen the Elephant Hawkmoth, so it is with some plants. I have lost track of the number of times pellitory-of-the-wall has been promised but by the time I get to the promised site, the weed sprayer has been around. But fortunately I was in time for the great mullein, and very impressive it is too, with its furry grey foliage and huge sprays of yellow flowers.
It has a wide variety of vernacular names, some of which reference its impressive shape and size, such as Aaron’s rod and Our Lady’s candle. Other names suggest the softness of the leaves, such as donkey’s ears and hare’s beard. However, the Plantlife website points out that a more modern name is the ‘Andrex plant’, and I fear that those soft leaves may have been used as handkerchiefs, or worse. One gentler use for the leaves was to insulate the moccasins of Native Americans – early settlers quickly got wise to this, and used the plant to line their stockings.
Those long flower stems used to be dipped in tallow and used as candles by the Romans. An infusion of the flowers could help to preserve ones golden locks (or possibly ones silver locks, ahem). Yet another name for the plant is ‘Quaker rouge’ – it’s said that women used to rub the coarse hairs of the plant onto their cheeks to give them a healthy glow. In the language of flowers, mullein is said to stand for ‘health and good nature’, and it is certainly a most generous plant.
Great mullein is a member of the Scrophularaceae family, which includes figworts. The plant is very wide ranging, and can be found throughout the whole of Europe, North Africa and Asia, in addition to having been introduced to the Americas and to Australia. It hates shade and can’t survive ploughing, but it is very patient. Interestingly, it germinates much more readily in bare soil where the seeds are exposed to the light – the plant grows four to seven times more successfully in these conditions than in sites where there is already some vegetation. In year one it produces an inoffensive rosette of furry leaves, but in year two it takes off like a rocket, with the flower stem growing as tall as two metres. In other words, this is a proper ‘weed’, ready to take advantage of disturbed soil to put on a ridiculous amount of biomass in a very short time.
Great mullein produces an enormous amount of seed – a single plant can produce nearly a quarter of a million seeds. However these don’t disperse very far, with the vast majority ending up within 5 metres of the parent plant. Fortunately, the seeds can sit in the seed bank for up to a hundred years, just waiting for a forest fire or for someone to cut back the undergrowth, so that the whole cycle can start all over again.
Each of the yellow flowers is only open for a single day. In the absence of insect pollinators, the plant can self-pollinate, but it is attractive to many bees and hoverflies. There is a theory that the furry leaves make it easier for bees to grasp the plant, and the hairs on the leaves are used by wool carder bees to make their nests.
What I especially wanted to see, however, were the caterpillars of the mullein moth (Cuculli verbasci), and hopefully this photo will indicate why. What a splendid beastie it is! And if you aren’t growing any great mullein, don’t despair, because this gorgeous caterpillar also eats buddleia leaves.
The adult is a little less flamboyant, but handsome nonetheless.
The plant has had a wide range of medicinal uses, from treating warts and athlete’s foot to being made into a decoction for the treatment of lung diseases, particularly tuberculosis. Most herbalists note that any medicine for internal use needs to be filtered carefully to get rid of the hairs from the plant. However, the plant also contains compounds which are poisonous to fish, and so it was sometimes used to stun the creatures so that they could be caught more easily.
And finally, a poem. There was a widespread legend that, in order to discover if your beloved was true, you should find a mullein, name it after your would-be girl or boyfriend, and bend the stem. If it springs back enthusiastically over a period of days, your prayers are granted. If the plant continues to droop, you are unlucky and had best find someone else to daydream about. Anyone thinking that there is a whole lot of phallic imagery going on with this is probably right.
Thomas William Parsons (1819 – 1892) was a New England poet who was not much appreciated in his day. His poem was published in ‘The Christian Examiner’, and the reviewer thought that the reason that Parson’s poems were not more widely acclaimed was because:
“… the quality of their merit prevents this; they lack something rough, pungent, sensational. Their quiet and unobtrusive charms escape the coarse and hurried observer. They require a more full equipment of mind, a more trained maturity of taste, more tenderness of emotion, more sustained patience of attention, than are furnished by the unscholarly, restless reader, who can feel nothing less harsh than a stab, and will bestow scarce a hasty glance on a sentiment or an idea. The dulcet notes of the lute can hardly be expected to work any charm in a rhinoceros, however choicely they are distilled into his ears.”
So let’s see, gentle readers, if our ears are attuned to the lute, or if we are mere rhinoceri. And please, no snickering at the back.
“The Mullein that Grows by Sudbury Woods,” 1870
‘Tis an awkward thing, with unmusical name,
The mullein that grows by the dusty road;
Yet oft to its woolly stalk I came
To watch what promise my mullein showed.
I had made a wish, and the stem I bent
To try whether fortune my wish would grant;
And this is all that my visits meant,
Morning and night, to the magical plant.
When I looked on it last, it was drooping still;
And I said, with disconsolate spirit, adieu
To the birch by the meadow, the beech on the hill,
To my walk in the wood, to my mullein, and you!
For this was my wish: that the one whom I love
(Whatever her blessed name may be),
As much as I value her smile above
All earthly treasure, might value me.
You patient ladies that watch its growth,
To my tremulous heart now the truth declare:
I charge you, I pray you, I put you on oath –
Does my mullein still droop, and must I despair?
Photo One By Bruce Marlin – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=662209
Photo Two by Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons