Urban Mullein

Verbascum thapsus

Projekt Runeberg: CAM Lindman: Bilder ur Nordens Flora. 1917-1926.

A vacant house in my neighborhood sports a good paint job, a well-kept lawn, and a hedge garden with three, very tall mullein plants. Apparently, the folks who are paid to mow the grass do not know that “Cowboy Toilet Paper” is not a popular landscaping plant.

Though near enough, the three plants grow separated by a distance which would suggest a deliberate planting. At over eight feet tall, they make a fetching place to stop on an otherwise concrete and asphalt tour of this part of urban Indianapolis. The plant is a weed, an invasive from Europe. Invasive, but with a longer history on this soil than have many of my relatives. Verbascum thapsus has some merit (medicinally, structurally, and in pure, but restrained tenacity … it can also be used to harvest fish) and perhaps it has a claim to this place which equals my own. As weeds go, I prefer it to the monocultural, yellow stretches of drab and squat day lilies planted in city medians.

For the vacant house, however, it is a sad but fitting monument. No one lives there to rip it from the garden, but (even sadder) someone meant to garden, but left the work unfinished. Mullein seeds rest in the soil for years waiting for someone to scalp the sod and start a project. Exposed, they germinate. Two years later (two years after a garden’s false start) they shoot up a bloom spike and prepare to drop their tiny seeds nearby. Biennials, the plants will die this winter and fall over sometime in the spring. The surrounding weeds will prevent a new crop of mullein. Thus, so it is, for one year only, a vacant house boasts the most interesting hedge garden on its street.


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