Wooly mullein (Verbascum thapsus) was introduced from Eurasia and is now established throughout most of temperate North America. A tall imposing plant that grows from two to six feet in height, wooly mullein can be found in disturbed areas such as river bottoms, fence rows, meadows, roadsides, pastures and vacant land. When wooly mullein invades agricultural land it is considered a noxious weed.
A biennial, the first year wooly mullein forms a rosette of basal leaves. In the second year a single erect stem with a single flower spike (inflorescence) arises from the thick taproot. Occasionally one or more short flower spikes forms off of the main spike. The entire wooly mullein plant is thickly covered with whitish hairs that are soft or wooly to the touch.
Wooly mullein leaves are large and soft. The basal rosette leaves are lance shaped and taper to a stalked base. The alternate stem leaves are numerous and get progressively smaller up the stem. Nearer the stem top the leaves begin to overlap, become stalkless and clasp the stem. The tips of the upper stem leaves curl inward.
The yellow (rarely whitish) flowers are densely crowded on the terminal spike. The petals are fused into a short tube with five spreading lobes. There are five stamens, the upper three are yellow and hairy while the lower two stamens are longer and hairless.
Numerous wooly mullein seeds are contained in an egg-shaped capsule. About the size of a grain of salt, the seeds are rod-shaped and pointed at one end.
The leaves of wooly mullein are edible if cooked, however the “fuzzy” feel is not palatable to most people. American Indians smoked the dried leaves of wooly mullein to relieve asthma, made a tea from the leaves to treat respiratory congestion, used the flowers for their antimicrobial properties and treated urinary infections with root concoctions. Additionally the seeds served to paralyze fish. Since wooly mullein contains both coumarin and rotenone, both of which are toxic, I have never experimented with ingesting this plant for medicinal or culinary purposes.
Wooly mullein has many common names including common mullein, great mullein, velvet dock, and torch plant. The name torch plant could refer to the fact that the inflorescences were once dipped in fat and then burned as candles or torches. Others credit the name torch plant to the fact that the yellow flowers open up from the bottom of the inflorescence to the top and resemble a flame. Mullein comes from the Latin “mollis” meaning “soft” and obviously refers to the soft feel of the plant.
These wooly mullein plants were photographed in the McArthur Swamp (Shasta County CA).