Winter Weeds: Common Mullein

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)

4 thoughts on “Winter Weeds: Common Mullein

  1. I thoroughly agree with not clearing the garden. Growing up my mother had a half acre garden & she never cleared it until it was time for the plowman to come turn over the earth for another Spring there were alot of animals & birds that came. Here where I live I am fortunate to live in a condo unit that faces the woods & a creek at the bottom. So the landscapers only do the fringe areas so we get deer, pheasants, all kinds of birds,on warm winter days squirrels &I a few chipmunks so it is always interesting to see how they make many trips up & down the bushes & remains of wild flower stems to get what they can. so everything for its season even no season. Nature is a wondrous things & people like you & your friends are wise to keep pointing it out to us who “look”. Dreary day but there’s always a bird here & there. And even yesterday with all the rain I saw a “stink” bug on the outside of our patio deck door still looking for a warm home but he did not get ours.

  2. Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I like mullein, although it is a non-native, because I think that the flower stalks, especially when they are close to eight foot tall, are pretty. And the leaves are soft and fuzzy like lamb’s ear. I also like (non-native) moth mullein and chicory and will let them grown in my garden if they start there, and I let thistles grow (but not the stuff that’s called Canada Thistle, which is really invasive) since the finches love the seeds.

    One native plan I am not fond of is goldenrod. It really takes over any bare spots if you aren’t diligent about ripping it out. Next to ground ivy and buttercups, goldenrod is the plant I have the most trouble with taking over my yard.

  3. There are different goldenrod species. One of them is clonal and really takes over (I forget the common and scientific name and my resources are not nearby) – some others are much more well behaved. Mary Ann, I wonder if you are plagued with the clonal one.

  4. My eye has been attracted to these stalks which grow to be eight feet tall. I discovered them on my walk near the power lines near the road side. Where the largest lambe ear grows that I have ever seen. At Christmas time I like to make things..bring the winter , feel inside Thanks for this site I am able to learn about this stalk. I think it it beautiful and plan to make a beautiful craft from it for Christmas..I was hoping that It didnt host too many bugs to enter my home..and didnt know about the seeds..
    I do feel a bit guilty taking natures food source though.

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