A densely hairy, greenish-gray herbaceous biennial. Flowers short, small, yellow, tubular, with 5 petal lobes; tightly packed in a terminal, usually unbranched, tall spike. Blooms May–September. During the first year, only a rosette of basal leaves forms. In the second year, the flower stalk rises, blooms, and sets seed, before the plant dies. The basal leaves persist during the winter, oblong, on petioles, to 1 foot long, extremely soft-hairy. Stem leaves are progressively smaller toward the top, with leaf tissue continuing into the stem.
Similar species: There are 4 species of Verbascum in Missouri. Moth mullein (V. blattaria) is common and weedy and is treated elsewhere in this guide. The other two are uncommon, introduced, and known only from single collections on highways or railroads: white mullein (V. lychnitis) in 1975, and clasping mullein (V. phlomoides) in 1915.
Height: 7 feet.
Habitat and Conservation
Occurs in disturbed, open sites sites, including old fields, pastures, farm yards, ditches, railroads, roadsides, waste places, banks of streams and rivers, margins of ponds and lakes, and disturbed parts of glades and prairies. A native of Europe, this mullein was introduced to the eastern United States in the 1700s as a toxin for fishing. It is now found throughout temperate North America. Grazing animals avoid this species, which allows it to increase in pastures.
About 2001 there was big news in the world of botany, as scientists divided the large figwort family (Scrophulariaceae) into several smaller families. For many decades, that family was thought to include about 4,000 species globally. But botanists asked if all those plants truly were so closely related. By 2001, DNA evidence proved that many “scrophs” belonged in separate families. Today, there are fewer than 1,700 species in the family, and mullein is one of only seven true scrophs in Missouri.
For millennia Europeans have used mullein to treat lung, skin, and digestive problems. Native Americans quickly grasped its medicinal value and also smoked it. The flowers yield yellow or green dye. The stalks, with wax or oil, can be used as torches. The leaves have been used for diapers and shoe insoles.
In Missouri, mullein fortunately does not compete well in healthy native habitats, even if it is troublesome in cultivated areas. In other states and countries, it is a noxious weed. One plant can make up to 180,000 seeds, which can stay viable for 120 years. Mullein can also host numerous insects.