Verbascusm thapsus sprawls untended in our unplowed fields and marches in dense, ragged phalanxes along the shoulders of highways from Ellerbe to Hoffman, and points in between.
We. Have. Been. Invaded.
“It seems like it’s gotten especially prevalent (hereabouts) over the past five years or so,” says Paige Burns, horticulturist with the Richmond County Extension. “It’s considered an invasive (species and is) relatively hard to control once it gets established.”
And we aren’t the only ones affected.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has documented the arrival of the originally European plant in every one of the 50 United States, where it is labeled everything from a nuisance to “noxious.” North Carolina has been labeled positive for infestation since March 2010.
One woman at a recent Ellerbe Town Commission meeting complained that the yellow-flowered plants loomed over her when she tried to take a walk about town. Farmer and Mayor Lee Berry commiserated but said the plant often seemed too hardy to kill.
One wag attending the meeting suggested using “gasoline and a lit match.” (Actually, the USDA says, pulling up the plant by the roots works — although that also could dislodge and spread the plant’s 100,000 or more seeds if one isn’t careful. Using contact herbicides just causes the plant to wilt, fall and spread seeds.)
Known hereabouts as “common mullein,” the plant first was brought to Virginia from Europe, where it was known as “great mullein,” in the early 18th century. Its lure: medicinal uses.
Make a tea from it, it is said, and mullein will soothe coughs, sore throats, and asthma or allergies. Our ancestors made a syrup from it to treat croup, or dried and smoked the leaves to stimulate the lungs. (I have a friend who reduces it to a tincture to keep her breathing freely in the Massachusetts winter.)
The plant is supposed to have palliative powers for everything from migraines to hemorrhoids. (And the fuzzy leaves are said to be good in salads, an unappetizing thought when mentioned in the same paragraph as hemorrhoids.)
A biennial, the plant presents itself in two yearly iterations: short and fuzzy, or tall as a snapdragon on steroids. (Snapdragons and mullein both are members of the figwort family.)
“It reproduces by seeds and makes a rosette of fuzzy leaves in the first year,” says Joe Neal, a horticulturist with N.C. State University in Raleigh. “The following spring or summer, the plant bolts and produces a flowering stalk.
“Early in the season, it may resemble a tobacco plant, but with much more pubescence” or hairlike covering called a trichome.
“Then it has bright yellow flowers,” he says. “It has actually been cultivated for the interesting leaves and pretty flowers.
“It is usually found on barren sites but, of course, can grow where the soil is good when it has a chance to do so.”
And, as with poppies, mullein seeds can lie dormant until the soil in which they’re embedded is churned up.
As for me, I strongly suspect mullein is related to the triffid, a tall, mobile, prolific plant that was the eponymous antagonist in John Wyndham’s 1951 novel “The Day of the Triffids.” (In fact, since the book came out, people in English have called all large, overgrown or menacing-looking plants “triffids,” Wikipedia says.)
In the book, triffids are thought to have come from outer space to take over the world. They have three-legged protrusions that help them move limpingly from here to there, nascent intelligence and brutal habits, attacking humans by opening their flower-like heads and shooting out fatal, immobilizing stingers.
But no one knows of their danger until the world has cultivated vast triffid farms, hoping to reap profits by extracting their valuable oil.
That is, until the triffids have other ideas and break out of the fields to go on the march, eradicating humans and moving to take over Earth, albeit “at something like an average walking pace.”
So believe what you want about the “common mullein.”
All I’m saying is, just be wary.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]