Whenever I am headed out on an extended hike to experience primitive conditions (read no electric, no running water, lucky if there is an outhouse… but usually we aren’t so lucky) I look longingly at these plants before heading out into the wild, knowing that once I am in the woods, I won’t be seeing them again. Those soft velvety leaves sure look like they’ll come in handy once the inevitable occurs on a multi-day hike.
Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) has the softest leaves. They feel like the polar fleece I so often wear on my adventures. (They may feel like animal fleece too, or lamb’s ears, but I have never felt those things, so I can’t be sure and I don’t want to make any promises should you decide to employ this leaf in the most sensitive of ways…) Turns out the hairs that makes this plant so soft (and a potential addition to the backpack for later use!) have a purpose besides human comfort. Many plants in the landscape found in dry, gravelly areas feature light coloration and lots of hair. The light color serves to reflect heat, making it so the plant doesn’t get as hot despite its location. The hairs create a buffering layer between the environment and the leaf surface. Plants may lose up to 99% of their water through their leaves each day. This buffer of fuzz reduces water loss, making it so the plant can survive and thrive in these hot, harsh, dry conditions. (A good gardening tip: If you have a hot dry sunny location you want to fill, go to the garden center and look for light fuzzy leaves, most of the time they will do just fine!) Hairy plants also tend to be pest resistant, seems insects and even deer don’t prefer the fuzzy leaves. So if you would like to add this plant to your camping paraphernalia, or keep it in mind just in case of emergency, remember you will not find this plant once you have entered the green cover of the forest. You must look for this plant before you head out – the gravelly slope of the roadside or the edges of a parking area are great places to look for Mullein.
If you would like to positively ID the Mullein before you, well…you know… some of my favorite books for weed identification are old wildflower guides. Seems back in the day folks didn’t differentiate between pretty weed and native wildflowers and they all got lumped into one book. One of my favorites A Color Guide to Familiar Wild Flowers Ferns and Grasses (1974) has become one of my go-to weed identification guides. Today it seems you need a native plant ID guide and if the flower you are looking for is not in there, then you also have to have a weed ID guide to use; a backpack can get quite heavy with all these field guides! Common Mullein is considered a weed. (A weed is just a plant growing where you don’t want it to right… at certain times, on certain adventures, this plant is farthest from a weed!) Native to Europe and able to colonize waste places where little else will grow it has many characteristics of a weedy plant. It has even made the list of America’s Least Wanted plants for its ability to outcompete native plants in open fields and roadsides. So pick the leaves and use appropriately.
Native to Europe and brought to America for its many medicinal uses, this biennial can be found in every state. Biennial means the first year the plant will exist only as a ground-hugging rosette of fuzzy leaves, they seem to be extra soft at this stage. The second year of their life, they send up a tall flowering stalk full of yellow flowers. Remember this when you are deciding what to plant in your garden. A biennial only lives 2 years and then dies relying on its seedlings to carry on. (Another gardening tip: Never ever purchase a biennial in flower at a garden center unless you understand that the funds you are plunking down are for a plant that will only be there for the rest of the growing season and will not come back next year.)
Everytime I look at a Common Mullein I think, why can’t they make toilet paper like that? I mean so many advancements have come form bio-engineering. Velcro was inspired by the burdock plant (another weed), here are 4 other inventions inspired by plants, why haven’t the big name paper companies started looking to the common Mullein for inspiration?