A weed is in the eye of the beholder.
As Marcy Cunkelman so aptly pointed out in the comments last week, just because a plant is currently not popular in gardens does not make it a weed. Some plants go in and out of fashion — Dense Blazing Star for example.
Nonetheless, today’s plant is truly unpopular. It was brought here from Europe for medicinal purposes and escaped into the wild where it grows quite successfully in waste places, especially next to roads.
Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a biennial that is simply Not Beautiful and for that it is called a weed.
In winter you’ll find it in two forms. In its first year it’s a basal rosette of large, velvety leaves similar in feel to the garden plant Lambs Ears. The leaves die in the frost but the root lives on and sprouts a stalk two to eight feet high the following spring. Click here to see what the stalk looks like in winter.
The second-year skeleton is easy to see because it’s so tall. Its coarse, stout, fuzzy stem has alternate leaves and is topped by one or more flower spikes, shown above. In summer these spikes were studded with yellow, five-petalled flowers up to an inch wide. Now they’ve gone to seed.
Common Mullein provides winter food for birds in two ways. The plant hosts many insects that the birds consume for protein and its seeds are food for finches, chickadees and downy woodpeckers.
Watch a Common Mullein skeleton to see who eats from it.
Of course, the plant has to be there for you to watch it, which leads me to the promise I made last week that I would tell you why you should not clear your garden in the fall. The answer is in the blog entry below this one.
(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)