Summer of Weeds: Common Mullein

The fuzzy, gray-green leaves of common mullein are familiar and friendly enough that it can be hard to think of this plant as a weed. Verbascum thapsus is a member of the figwort family and is known by dozens of common names, including great mullein, Aaron’s rod, candlewick, velvet dock, blanket leaf, feltwort, and flannel plant. Its woolly leaves are warm and inviting and have a history of being used as added padding and insulation, tucked inside of clothing and shoes. In Wild Edible and Useful Plants of Idaho, Ray Vizgirdas writes, “the dried stalks are ideal for use as hand-drills to start fires; the flowers and leaves produce yellow dye; as a toilet paper substitute, the large fresh leaves are choice.”

Common mullein is a biennial that was introduced to eastern North America from Eurasia in the 1700’s as a medicinal plant and fish poison. By the late 1800’s it had reached the other side of the continent. In its first year it forms a rosette of woolly, oblong and/or lance-shaped leaves. After overwintering it produces a single flower stalk up to 6 feet tall. The woolly leaves continue along the flower stalk, gradually getting smaller in size until they reach the inflorescence, which is a long, dense, cylindrical spike. Sometimes the stalk branches out to form multiple inflorescences.

First year seedlings of common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

The inflorescence doesn’t flower all at once; instead, a handful of flowers open at a time starting at the bottom of the spike and moving up in an irregular pattern. The process takes several weeks to complete. The flowers are about an inch wide and sulfur yellow with five petals. They have both female and male sex parts but are protogynous, meaning the female organs mature before the male organs. This encourages cross-pollination by insects. However, if pollination isn’t successful by the end of the day, the flowers self-pollinate as the petals close. Each flower produces a capsule full of a few hundred seeds, and each plant can produce up to 180,000 seeds. The seeds can remain viable for over 100 years, sitting in the soil waiting for just the right moment to sprout.

Common mullein is a friend of bare, recently disturbed soil. It is rare to see this plant growing in thickly vegetated areas. As an early successional plant, its populations can be abundant immediately after a disturbance, but they do not persist once other plants have filled in the gaps. Instead they wait in seed form for the next disturbance that will give them the opportunity to rise again. They can be a pest in gardens and farm fields due to regular soil disturbance, and are often abundant in pastures and rangelands because livestock avoid eating their hairy leaves. Because of its ephemeral nature, it is generally not considered a major weed; however, it is on Colorado’s noxious weed list.

Several features make common mullein a great example of a drought-adapted plant. Its fleshy, branching taproot can reach deep into the soil to find moisture, the thick hairs on the leaves help reduce water loss via transpiration, and the way the leaves are arranged and angled on the stalk can help direct rain water down toward the roots.

Common mullein has an extensive history of ethnobotanical uses. Medicinally it has been used internally to treat coughs, colds, asthma, bronchitis, and kidney infections; and as a poultice to treat warts, slivers, and swelling. The dried flower stalks have been used to make torches, and the fuzzy leaves have been used as tinder for fire-making and wicks in lamps.

The hairy leafscape of common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

More Resources:

Quote of the Week:

From Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway

Here’s why opportunistic plants are so successful. When we clear land or carve a forest into fragments, we’re creating lots of open niches. All that sunny space and bare soil is just crying out to be colongized by light- and fertlity-absorbing green matter. Nature will quickly conjure up as much biomass as possible to capture the bounty, by seeding low-growing ‘weeds’ into a clearing or, better yet, sprouting a tall thicket stretching into all three dimensions to more effectively absorb light and develop deep roots. … When humans make a clearing, nature leaps in, working furiously to rebuild an intact humus and fungal layer, harvest energy, and reconstruct all the cycles and connections that have been severed. A thicket of fast-growing pioneer plants, packing a lot of biomass into a small space, is a very effective way to do this. … And [nature] doesn’t care if a nitrogen fixer or a soil-stabilizing plant arrived via continental drift or a bulldozer’s treads, as long as it can quickly stitch a functioning ecosystem together.

Book Review: Weeds Find a Way

At what age do we become aware that there are profound differences among the plants we see around us? That some are considered good and others evil. Or that one plant belongs here and another doesn’t. Most young children (unless an adult has taught them) are unaware that there is a difference between a weed and a desirable plant. If it has attractive features or something fun to interact with – like the seed heads of dandelions or the sticky leaves of bedstraw – they are all the same. At some point in our trajectory we learn that some plants must be rooted out, while others can stay. Some plants are uninvited guests – despite how pretty they might be – while others are welcome and encouraged.

But weeds are resilient, and so they remain. Weeds Find a Way, written by Cindy Jenson-Elliot and illustrated by Carolyn Fisher, is a celebration of weeds for their resiliency as well as for their beauty and usefulness. This book introduces the idea of weeds to children, focusing mainly on their tenacity, resourcefulness, and positive attributes rather than their darker side. “Weeds are here to stay,” so perhaps there is a place for them.

The book begins by listing some of the “wondrous ways” that weed seeds disperse themselves: “floating away on the wind,” attaching themselves to “socks and fur,” shot “like confetti from a popped balloon.” And then they wait – under snow and ice or on top of hot sidewalks – until they find themselves in a time and place where they can sprout. Eventually, “weeds find a way to grow.”

Weeds also “find a way to stay.” We can pull them up, but their roots are often left behind to “sprout again.” Pieces and parts break off and take root in the soil. Animals may swoop in to devour them, but weeds drive them away with their thorns, prickles, and toxic chemicals. In these ways they are a nuisance, but they can be beautiful and beneficial, too.

This illustrated story of weeds is followed by some additional information, as well as a list of common weeds with brief descriptions. Weeds are defined as plants “thought to be of no value that grow in places where people do not want them to grow,” adding that even “misunderstood and underappreciated plants that are native to a region and have multiple uses” can be labeled weeds.

The concept of weeds as invasive species is also addressed; some introduced plants move into natural areas and can “crowd out native vegetation, block streams, and drive away wild animals.” That being said, weeds also provide us with “endless opportunities to study one of nature’s most wonderful tools: adaptation.” Weeds are problematic as much as they are useful, it’s simply a matter of perspective.

A criticism of this book might be that it doesn’t focus enough on the negative aspects of weeds. There is plenty of that elsewhere. The aim of this book is to connect us with nature, and as Jensen-Elliot writes, “you don’t need a garden to know that nature is at work.” When there is a weed nearby, nature is nearby. Weeds “adapt and grow in tough times and desolate places,” and they make the world beautiful “one blossom at a time.”

Introducing the Summer of Weeds

I spent the first five months of this year posting almost exclusively about invasive species. There is still plenty more to say on the topic, and I’m sure I will get back to that. However, it is time now to dive into the topic that I really want to explore. Weeds.

There is definitely crossover between the two topics – many weeds are invasive species – but there are clear distinctions, too. Oftentimes, weeds as a category of plants are unfairly and unjustly lumped under the title “invasive,” but any plant can be a weed at any moment in time if a human says so. That’s the difference. A plant does not have to prove that it is causing any sort of ecological or economic damage to be called a “weed;” it just has to be growing where a human doesn’t want it to. Yet, too quickly a plant “out of place” is cursed at using words like “invasive” or “noxious” regardless of its origin or behavior. I know I’m being overly semantic about this, but it seems unfair (and incorrect) to lump any and all plants that are bothering us for whatever reason into categories that have legal definitions.

If you can’t already tell, I am obsessed with weeds. It’s a topic I have been thinking about fairly consistently for much of my adult life. For one thing, as part of my career I spend a huge portion of my time killing and controlling weeds. I comprehend fully the visceral reaction of seeing a garden overcome by weeds – the vile thoughts one can have towards a group of plants that are soiling what could otherwise be a beautiful landscape – and I know very well the backbreaking work and countless hours that go into removing uninvited plants (cursing the intruders along the way). I get why weeds are a problem, and I understand why they are a subject of so much vitriol. Yet, over the years I have developed a respect – even a love – for weeds (despite the fact that I still must remove them and that removing them continues to be an overwhelming task).

Unwanted plants have been following us around and getting in our way for millenia. Essentially, we are partners in crime. We intentionally and unintentionally bring plants from various parts of the world on our travels, and through disturbance we create conditions where introduced plants can settle in and thrive. Over time, some once beloved plants grow out of favor and transition from desirable to weedy. As our cycles of disturbance continue, we give early successional, opportunistic plant species a chance to perpetuate themselves, guaranteeing that we will keep such “weeds” with us forever. We reap what we sow; even though we generally don’t plant weeds on purpose, other actions ensure that they will be our constant companions.

The importance of weed control goes beyond the aesthetic. In horticulture and agriculture, weeds compete with crops for light, space, water, and nutrients. They also harbor pests and diseases, and their seeds can contaminate crops. In pastures and rangelands, some weeds poison livestock. Certain weeds are harmful to people, too. Other weeds are simply disruptive – getting tangled up in machinery, damaging infrastructure, blocking our vision along roadways, and even giving cyclists flat tires. Apart from all that, even if all weeds did was make our gardens look unsightly, I imagine we would still be pretty angry with them.

I am interested in weeds wherever they are, but the weeds that fascinate me the most are those that thrive in urban environments. Not necessarily the weeds in our yards, but the weeds that have escaped our fences and property lines; the ones in the margins. We see them in abandoned lots, along roadways, near irrigation channels, and in other neglected spaces. They pop up in the cracks of sidewalks, on rooftops, in the middle of decaying buildings, and anywhere else that people haven’t paid attention to in a while. Urban areas have, for the most part, been scraped of their native flora. Introduced species move in to fill that void. As Richard Mabey writes in his book about weeds, these plants “insinuate the idea of wild nature into places otherwise quite shorn of it;” they are “the very essence of wildness.” Novel ecosystems, like those created by urbanization and human development, are with us whether we like it or not. There is a “wildness” to them that is unlike other cultivated and manicured areas maintained by humans. These urban wild places are worth a closer look.

So, what is the Summer of Weeds?

Put simply, it’s an exploration of weeds. Throughout the summer I will be profiling some of the weeds I come across in my daily life. I will include photos, a brief description, and some interesting facts about each species. I will also include quotes about weeds from various sources, as well as videos, links, resources, and whatever else I come across that seems worth sharing. I hope you enjoy it. If you have anything to add along the way – specifically any personal thoughts or stories to share about weeds – please do. You can contact me via the usual ways: in the comment section below, through the Contact page, or on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, or Instagram. Happy Summer!

Love and Hate – The Story of Purple Loosestrife

In the early 1800’s, seeds of purple loosestrife found their way to North America. They arrived from Europe several times by various means – accidentally embedded in the ballast of ships, inadvertently tucked in sheep’s wool, and purposely carried in the hands of humans. Native to much of Europe and parts of Asia and commonly found growing in wetlands and other riparian areas, purple loosestrife’s appealing spikes of magenta flowers, sturdy, upright growth habit, and ease of propagation made it a prized ornamental; its abundant nectar made it a favorite of beekeepers.

During its first 150 years or so in North America, purple loosestrife became naturalized in ditches, wet meadows, and the banks of streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds while also enjoying a place in our gardens. Concern about its spread was raised in the first half of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t until the 1980’s after an extensive survey was done and a special report was issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that attitudes about purple loosestrife shifted dramatically. At that point, it was no longer a benign invader and welcome garden companion. It was, instead, a biological menace that needed to be destroyed.

Lytrhrum salicaria – commonly known as purple loosestrife, spiked willow-herb, long purples, rainbow weed, etc. – is an herbaceous perennial in the family Lythraceae. It reaches up to two meters tall; has square or angular stems with lance-shaped, stalkless leaves up to ten centimeters long; and ends in dense, towering spikes of pink-purple, 5-7 petaled flowers. The flowers attract a wide variety of pollinating insects – mostly bees – and afterwards produce small capsules full of tiny, red-brown seeds. Charles Darwin thoroughly studied the flowers of purple loosestrife; he was intrigued by the plant for many reasons, including its heterostyly (a topic for another post).

Lythrum salicaria (purple loosestrife) – image credit: wikimedia commons

Purple loosestrife seeds remain viable for up to 20 years and are transported by wind, water, and in mud stuck to the feet of birds. Apart from seeds, populations expand clonally as root crowns grow larger each year and produce increasingly more stems. Broken stem pieces also take root in mud, creating new plants. Purple loosestrife’s ability to form expansive populations in a quick manner, pushing other plants aside and forming what appears to be a dense monoculture, is part of the reason it has earned itself a place among the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of 100 World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species.

But is this ranking justified? In a paper published in Biological Invasions in 2010, Claude Lavoie compares news reports about purple loosestrife around the turn of the century with data presented in scientific papers and finds that the reports largely exaggerate the evidence. Purple loosestrife was being accused of all manner of crimes against nature and was being condemned before there was sound evidence to justify such actions.

It began with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s special report published in 1987. According to Lavoie, “a long list of the impacts of the species on wetland flora and fauna [was] presented,” but the claims were not supported by observational or experimental data – “the impacts [were] only suspected.” Regardless, wetland managers began campaigns against purple loosestrife in order to convince the public that it was a Beautiful Killer. News outlets were quick to spread the word about this “killer” plant. When biological control programs began in the 1990’s, news outlets reported on their success. Little empirical evidence had been published on either topic, and debates about purple loosestrife’s impacts remained unsettled in the scientific community.

The flowers of purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Around this time, five reviews were published examining the evidence against purple loosestrife. Lavoie reports that all but one of them “rely on a relatively high number of sources that have not been published in peer-reviewed journals.” After examining the reviews, Lavoie concludes: “although each review provided valuable information on purple loosestrife, most were somewhat biased and relied on a substantial amount of information that was anecdotal or not screened by reviewers during a formal evaluation process. Only one review was impartial, and this one painted an inconclusive picture of the species.”

Research has continued regarding the impacts of purple loosestrife, and so Lavoie examined 34 studies that were published during the 2000’s in search of conclusive evidence that the plant is as destructive to wetlands and wildlife as has been claimed. Upon examination he concludes that “stating that this plant has ‘large negative impacts’ on wetlands is probably exaggerated.” The most common accusation – that purple loosestrife crowds out native plants and forms a monoculture – “is controversial and has not been observed in nature (with maybe one exception).” Lavoie finds that there is “certainly no evidence that purple loosestrife ‘kills wetlands’ or ‘creates biological deserts,'” and “there are no published studies [in peer-reviewed journals] demonstrating that purple loosestrife has an impact on waterfowl or fishes.” All other negative claims against purple loosestrife “have not been the object of a study,” except for its impact on amphibians, which had at that time only been tested on two species, one “reacting negatively.” Certain claims – such as purple loosestrife’s impact on wetland hydrology – should be studied more in depth “considering the apparent public consensus on the detrimental effects of purple loosestrife” on wetland ecosystems.

Lavoie agrees that it is reasonable to control purple loosestrife when the intention is to reduce additional pressures on an ecosystem that is already highly threatened. However, he warns that “focusing on purple loosestrife instead of on other invasive species or on wetland losses to agriculture or urban sprawl could divert the attention of environmental managers from more urgent protection needs.” There is mounting evidence that purple loosestrife invasions are disturbance-dependent and are “an indicator of anthropogenic disturbances.” In order to protect our wetlands, we must first protect them against undue disturbance. Lavoie supports using the Precautionary Principle when dealing with introduced species; however, he finds the approach “much more valuable for newcomers than for invaders coexisting with native species for more than a century.”

A field of purple loosestrife in Massachusetts – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Purple loosestrife has found its way to nearly every state in America and most of the Canadian provinces. Peter Del Tredici writes in Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, “Conservationists despise purple loosestrife, despite its beauty, and it is listed as an invasive species in most of the states where it grows.” By listing a plant as a noxious weed, landowners are obligated to remove it. Care must be taken though, as removal of purple loosestrife can result in a secondary invasion by noxious weeds with an even worse track record, such as common reed or reed canary grass. “Hardly a gain from the biodiversity point of view,” quips Lavoie.

Claude Lavoie’s paper and the papers he references are definitely worth reading. It is important that we continue to study purple loosestrife and species like it in order to fully understand the impact that introduced species are having on natural areas, especially since it is unlikely that we will ever completely eliminate them. On that note, I’ll leave you with this passage from The Book of Swamp and Bog by John Eastman:

The situation is easy for environmentalists to deplore. This plant, like few others, stirs our alien prejudice. Our native cattails, for example, are almost as rudely aggressive and competitive in many wetland areas as purple loosestrife. Yet, because cattails obvioulsy ‘belong here,’ they seldom evoke the same outraged feelings against their existence. … With the spread of purple loosestrife, we have new opportunities to witness the phases of an ever-recurring ecological process. We can watch it affect, change, adapt, and refit both its own elements and those of invaded communities into new arrangements of energy efficiency. The point is that we might as well study this process rather than simply deplore it; we have few alternatives.

Field Trip: Chico Hot Springs and Yellowstone National Park

Thanks to an invitation from my girlfriend Sierra and her family, I spent the first weekend in May exploring Yellowstone National Park by way of Chico Hot Springs in Pray, Montana. The weather was perfect, and there were more plants in bloom than I had expected. During our hikes, my eyes were practically glued to the ground looking for both familiar and unfamiliar plant life. Most of the plants in bloom were short and easily overlooked. Many were non-native. Regardless, the amateur botanist in me was thrilled to be able to spend time with each one, whether I was able to identify it or not. I tried to remind myself to look up as often as I was looking down. Both views were remarkable.

On our first day there, we hiked in the hills above Chico Hot Springs. The trail brought us to a place called Trout Pond. There were lots of little plants to see along the way.

Trout Pond (a.k.a. Chico Pond) near Chico Hot Springs in Pray, Montana

mountain bluebells (Mertensia longifolia)

shooting star (Dodecantheon pulchellum)

western stoneseed (Lithospermum ruderale)

western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum)

The next day we drove into Yellowstone. From the north entrance we headed east towards Lamar Valley. Wildlife viewing was plentiful. Elk, bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, black bears, red foxes, and even – if you can believe it – Canada geese.

Sierra looks through the binoculars.

Perhaps she was looking for this red-tailed hawk.

Daniel looks at a tiny plant growing in the rocks.

Still not sure what this tiny plant is…

On our third day there, we headed south to see some geysers. We made it to the Norris Geyser Basin and then decided to head east to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This was our geology leg of the tour. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t stop to look at a plant or two along the way.

Nuttall’s violet (Viola nuttallii) near the petrified tree in Yellowstone National Park

Wild strawberry (Fragaria sp.) at Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park

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Photos of Lamar Valley, red-tailed hawk, Daniel looking at a tiny plant, mystery plant, and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone were taken by Sierra Laverty. The rest were taken by Daniel Murphy.

Speaking of Sierra, she is the founder and keeper of Awkward Botany’s Facebook page and Instagram account. Please check them out and like, follow, etc. for Awkward Botany extras.

Campaigns Against Invasive Species, part two

Happy American Wetlands Month!

One of the biggest threats to wetland ecosystems is, of course, invasive species. In last week’s post I shared a selection of videos that were produced by a variety of organizations to inform the public about invasive species. Many such videos specifically address invasives in wetlands and waterways. Here are a few of those videos.

Invasive Species of Idaho reminds you to “Clean, Drain, Dry” to avoid transporting aquatic hitchhikers:

Purple loosestrife is a “very wicked plant:”

Commander Ben vs. the Saltcedar Bandits:

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality urges hunters not to use Phragmites australis to make duck blinds:

More information about Phragmites by National Geographic:

Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Attack of the Zebra Mussels:

The story of Eurasian milfoil told by students at George Williams College:

Water hyacinth – another “very wicked plant”:

Water hyacinth invasion in Africa:

Attack of the Killer Algae by TED-Ed:

Campaigns Against Invasive Species, part one

I have been posting almost exclusively about invasive species for four months now. If you have made it this far, I salute you. It is neither the most exciting nor the most encouraging topic, but it is the journey I am on (for whatever reason), and I am pleased to have you along.

In the battle against invasive species, citizen awareness and participation is imperative. The public and private sectors can try as they may, but if individual citizens are acting in ways that help introduce or spread invasives, then much of this effort can be for naught. Thus, campaigns to educate the public are regularly launched.

One popular way to spread the word is through video. Often, the goal of these videos is to both educate and entertain. Some achieve this better than others, while some are downright dull or simply baffling. Speculating on the effectiveness of these videos is not the purpose of this post. Rather, I just thought I would take a break from the usual text heavy posts and share a few videos that I found interesting and/or entertaining. If you have a favorite invasive species video, please share it in the comment section below.

Invasive species explained:

Introducing Bob Noxious from Invasive Species of Idaho:

And here is the particularly creepy, Vin Vasive, from USDA APHIS:

Invaders! in British Columbia:

In Namibia, “Cacti must die!”:

Eco Sapien and the story of Japanese knotweed in the UK:

What happened when American minks, brought to Europe for the fur trade, escaped into natural areas?:

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality explains how invasive species spread:

Pennsylvania’s Wild Resource Conservation Program teaches kids about invasive species:

MinuteEarth‘s take on invasive species:

Also, check out these five TEDx talks: