Mullein isn’t native to the United States, but there are eighteen species that grow wild in the USA. Two of those species are presented here, and this non-native plant is now so widespread that Moth Mullein is found in every state except Alaska and Wyoming, and Common Mullein is found in every state in the union. You’ve seen these, I’m sure, along the roadsides where they are typically found with both of these species growing several feet tall, each with a tall stem terminating in a spike of small, showy yellow flowers.
The flower spike of common mullein is much more dense than that of moth mullein, but the flowers both are similarly shaped. Both have five petals, 5 stamens, and a single pistil which are surrounded by hairs in the center of the blossom, but moth mullein’s flower hairs are purplish and white, while common mullein’s are white. The petals in common mullein are yellow. Moth mullein’s petals, while usually yellow, may occasionally be white, even on the same plant with yellow blossoms.
Common mullein is also known as great mullein since it can sometimes reach the height of 7 feet or more. A more descriptive common name for V. thapsus is ‘woolly mullein’ owing to the thick cover of hairs on the leaves. It is reported that native Americans lined their moccasins with the velvety leaves as insulation. I can believe this, but find it interesting that this is attributed to native Americans while the plant itself is an import from Europe.
Moth mullein is not as hairy as common mullein, but there are glandular hairs on the upper flower spike and out onto the blossoms themselves.
The mulleins are known for their medicinal use, and one should exercise great caution in ingesting the plant. The leaves have been used for treatment of asthma and other respiratory ailments. The seeds reportedly contain high levels of rotenone, which is used as an insecticide, and coumarin, which is a blood thinner.
It’s pronouned muhl’-luhn, by the way. I didn’t know until I started this research.
- National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers–E: Eastern Region