This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Yellow, 1 in. across or less, seated around a thick, dense, elongated spike. Calyx 5-parted; corolla of 5 rounded lobes; 5 anther-bearing stamens, the 3 upper ones short, woolly; 1 pistil. Stem: Stout, 2 to 7 ft. tall, densely woolly, with branched hairs. Leaves: Thick, pale green, velvety-hairy, oblong, in a rosette on the ground; others alternate, strongly clasping the stem.
Preferred Habitat - Dry fields, banks, stony waste land.
Flowering Season - June - September.
Distribution - Minnesota and Kansas, eastward to Nova Scotia and Florida. Europe.
Leaving the fluffy thistle-down he has been kindly scattering to the four winds, the goldfinch spreads his wings for a brief undulating flight, singing in waves also as he goes to where tall, thick-set mullein stalks stand like sentinels above the stony pasture. Here companies of the exquisite little black and yellow minstrels delight to congregate with their sombre families and feast on the seeds that rapidly follow the erratic flowers up the gradually lengthening spikes.
Delpino long ago pointed out that the blossom is best adapted to pollen-collecting bees, which, alighting on the two long, protruding stamens, rub off pollen on their under sides while clinging for support to the wool on the three shorter stamens, whose anthers supply their needs. As a bee settles on another flower, the stigma is calculated to touch the pollen on his under side before he gets dusted with more; thus cross-pollination is effected. Three stamens furnish a visitor with food, two others clap pollen on him. Numerous flies assist in removing the pollen, too.
"I have come three thousand miles to see the mullein cultivated in a garden, and christened the velvet plant," says John Burroughs in "An October Abroad." But even in England it grows wild, and much more abundantly in Southern Europe, while its specific name is said to have been given it because it was so common in the neighborhood of Thapsus; but whether the place of that name in Africa, or the Sicilian town mentioned by Ovid and Virgil, is not certain. Strange that Europeans should labor under the erroneous impression that this mullein is native to America, whereas here it is only an immigrant from their own land. Rapidly taking its course of empire westward from our seaports into which the seeds smuggled their passage among the ballast, it is now more common in the Eastern States, perhaps, than any native. Forty or more folk-names have been applied to it, mostly in allusion to its alleged curative powers, its use for candle-wick and funeral torches in the Middle Ages. The generic title, first used by Pliny, is thought to be a corruption of Barbascum = with beards, in allusion to the hairy filaments, or, as some think, to the leaves.
Of what use is this felt-like covering to the plant? The importance of protecting the delicate, sensitive, active cells from intense light, draught, or cold, have led various plants to various practices; none more common, however, than to develop hairs on the epidermis of their leaves, sometimes only enough to give it a downy appearance, sometimes to coat it with felt, as in this case, where the hairs branch and interlace. Fierce sunlight in the exposed, dry situations where the mullein grows; prolonged drought, which often occurs at flowering season, when the perpetuation of the species is at stake; and the intense cold which the exquisite rosettes formed by year-old plants must endure through a winter before they can send up a flower-stalk the second spring - these trials the well-screened, juicy, warm plant has successfully surmounted through its coat of felt. Humming birds have been detected gathering the hairs to line their tiny nests. The light, strong stalk makes almost as good a cane as bamboo, especially when the root end, in running under a stone, forms a crooked handle. Pale country beauties rub their cheeks with the velvety leaves to make them rosy.
Great Mullen Or Velvet Dock (Verbascum thapsus).