Verbascum thapsus – a very useful plant!

This interesting looking Texas native and member of the snapdragon family is best known as the common mullein.  It is also known as cowboy toilet paper!  The leaves in the rosette are velvety soft.

Common Mullein (Courtesy of Paula Richards)
Common Mullein
(Courtesy of Paula Richards)

While most of us typically think of plants as annuals (those you plant every year) or perennials (those that come back year after year), the mullein is a biennial plant.  A biennial plant takes two years to complete its life cycle.  The first year, it builds out it’s root and leaf structure.  The second year, the plant it produces flowers and seeds or fruits, then it dies.  The plant above is in its first year, and the plant below is sprouting its second year flower stalk.  The stalk will eventually have yellow flowers and can grow up to eight feet talk.  Due to our water and whether conditions here in the hill country, most grow to around four feet.   Other biennials include onions, parsley and carrots.

Flowering stem growing from 2nd year plant. (Courtesy of Paula Richards)
Flowering stem growing from 2nd year plant.
(Courtesy of Paula Richards)

For thousands of years, mullein has been used for a variety of medicinal purposes:  pounded into a poultice and used to treat skin sores, infections, and hemorrhoids, and in a tea to treat respiratory (lung) aliments such as asthma, coughs, and bronchitis.   The leaves have been used to produce a yellow die that was used on cloth and to even to die hair (so even back then, folks thought blonds had more fun?).  A cautionary note found in most herbalists, strain the mixture to remove the hairy bits that can cause irritation to the skin and mouth.

It may look like a humble weed, but it has some interesting uses.  Look for it the next time you go for a hike.

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