The Mullein Adventure

I hung out with my friend Hubert today up in Suffern, in Rockland County.  He is helping me learn to better manage my data for my projects and he is also helping me learn how to build this website. After a couple of hours of working, we went for a walk.  He said he found a cool spot he thought I would like to see.  So he took me to the 711 on route 59.  OK.  Interesting.  What could possibly be here?

There is a small woodlot behind the 711.  A typical suburban woodlot - a few trees, herbaceous plants, rubble, trash.  But walk in a short ways and it opens to a sunny field that has the biggest stand of mullein I have ever encountered.  Not just the number of mullein plants (which was a lot!), but also the size of each plant.  Some were over 6 feet tall!

Field of mullein

Photo by Hubert Urruttia

One could get lost in there 

Photo by Hubert Urruttia

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a biennial - a plant that completes its life cycle in two years. The first year it is a rosette of leaves growing close to the ground.  It spends that first year photosynthesizing and producing starches and sugars.  It stores those carbohydrates in a tap root.  The second year it uses the energy it has stored up and grows tall with larger leaves towards the base and a flowering stalk (inflorescence) with many small 5 petaled yellow flowers.


Verbascum thapsus Scrophulariaceae

The pattern the leaves make as they clasp the stem is quite striking.  And they make a cozy home for a harvestman (daddy-long-legs).

Photo by Hubert Urruttia

Mullein is a European native that was introduced to the U.S. in the 1700s, originally as a piscicide (fish poison).  It is generally just a weedy plant, but is considered by some to be an invasive and it poses a threat to our native meadows and forest clearings.  You can see in the image below, as  soon as you enter the shady areas, there is no mullein.  I am lover and champion of native plants, but I always appreciate the beauty of all plants.  After all, it's our fault, not theirs, that the ecosystems are out of balance.


As with most disturbed sites such as this, most of the plants found are not native.  We saw St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum), wisteria vine (Wisteria sp.), garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis).  But we did see a very few natives including sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and pokeweed (Phytolocca americana). 

Triodanis perfoliata (clasping Venus' looking glass) Campanulaceae

Photo by Hubert Urruttia

Lobelia spicata (pale-spike lobelia) Campanulaceae

So the next time you have a craving for a slurpee, make sure to check out the woodlots where you are shopping, you never know what cool plants you might find.