common mullen (Verbascum thapsus)
SCIENTIFIC SYNONYMS: There are no scientific synonyms for
CONFIRMATION STATUS: Pending confirmation.
TAXONOMY: The currently accepted scientific name of common
mullein is Verbascum thapsus L. Common mullein is an imposing plant
with interesting foliage and form. The flowers seem small and inconspic-
uous in comparison with the rest of the plant. This is an easy plant to iden-
tify, although there are other Verbascum spp. (Mulleins) in Virginia that
have a similar appearance. Of these, only Verbascum phlomoides (orange
mullein) is known to occur in Facquier County. This latter species has
larger flowers (at least 1" across) that range in color from pale yellow to
orange-yellow. While common mullein has dense spikes of flowers, the
flowering spikes of orange mullein are more interrupted and less dense.
The leaves of orange mullein are less hairy and more green on the upper
surface, and its upper leaves are only slightly decurrent against the stem.
At one time, the dried stalks of common mullein were dipped in wax or
tallow and used as torches.
NATIVE STATUS: Introduced, United States and Canada.
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS:
Habit: During the 1st year, this adventive or introduced biennial plant
consists of a rosette of basal leaves about 1-2' across. During the 2nd
year, it becomes 3-7' tall and is usually unbranched. Occasionally, one
or two side stems may develop in the upper half of the plant. These
stems are covered with downy white hairs.
Leaves: The alternate leaves are up to 12" long and 4" across, becoming
progressively smaller and more narrow as they ascend the central stem.
They are obovate or oblong-ovate, smooth or slightly crenate along the
margins (which are sometimes wavy), and covered with fine downy hairs.
The lower leaves taper gradually to a narrow winged base, while the upper
leaves are partially decurrent against the stem. The dense branched hairs
provide the foliage with a color that is whitish or greyish green.
Flowers: The central stem terminates in a dense spike of flowers about
½2' long. Each flower is about ¾" across and consists of 5 pale yellow
petals, 5 hairy green sepals, 5 stamens, and a pistil. The 3 upper stamens
are covered with white or yellow hairs, while the 2 lower stamens are hair-
less. Only a few flowers are in bloom at the same time.
Fruit/Seeds: Each flower is replaced by a seed capsule with 2 cells, each
cell containing numerous little seeds. The rectangular- oblong seeds have
fine wavy ridges and tiny pits across the surface. While the foliage withers
away, the central stalk and its seed capsules turn brown and persist through
the winter. The seeds are small enough to be carried aloft by the gusts of
wind that shake the central stalk.
Roots: The root system consists of a stout taproot that runs deep into the
REGENERATION PROCESS: Verbascum thapsus spreads by reseed-
HABITAT TYPES: Common mullen is native to Eurasia, and may have
been introduced into the United States as an herbal or ornamental plant.
Habitats include limestone glades, rocky slopes and clay banks, pastures
and fallow fields, areas along railroads and roadsides, vacant lots, and dry
waste areas. Disturbed areas are preferred.
SITE CHARACTERISTICS: Typical growing conditions are full sun
and mesic to dry soil that often contains clay or stony material. The foliage
is little bothered by pests and disease, although some of the lower leaves
may wither away during a drought. The seeds can lie dormant in the soil
for several decades and remain capable of germination.
SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT: The blooming period usually occurs
during the summer (July to September) and lasts about 1½ months.
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: Common mullen is found through- out
the United States and most of the Canadian provinces (excepting the
SKY MEADOWS DISTRIBUTION: To be determined.
IMPORTANCE AND USES: Bumblebees are the most important
pollinators of the flowers, where they seek nectar and pollen. Other
insect visitors, which seek pollen, include halictid bees and syrphid
flies. An unusual group of bees, consisting primarily of Anthidium
spp. (carder bees) in North America, use the fuzzy hairs from the fol-
iage as a water-proof lining in their nests. The seeds of great mullein
are too small to be of much interest to birds, while the hairy foliage
is avoided by mammalian herbivores. Both the foliage and the seeds
may contain toxic compounds.
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