Gateway to the Classics: Wild-Flower Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
Wild-Flower Study by  Anna Botsford Comstock


Teacher's Story

"I like the plants that you call weeds,—

Sedge, hardhack, mullein, yarrow,—

Which knit their leaves and sift their seeds

Where any grassy wheel-track leads

Through country by-ways narrow."

—Lucy Larcom.

We take much pride unto ourselves because we belong to the chosen few of the "fittest," which have survived in the struggle for existence. But, if we look around upon other members of this select band, we shall find many lowly beings which we do not ordinarily recognize as our peers. Mullein is one of them, and after we study its many ways of "winning out" then may we bow to it and call it "brother."



Photo by Verne Morton.

I was wandering one day in a sheep pasture and looking curiously at the few plants left uneaten. There was a great thistle with its sharp spines and the pearly everlasting—too woolly and anæmic to be appetizing even to a sheep; and besides these, there was an army of mullein stalks—tall, slim, and stiff-necked, or branching like great candelabra, their upper leaves adhering alternately to the stalks for half their length. I stopped before one of them and mentally asked, "Why do the sheep not relish you? Are you bitter?" I took a bite, Nebuchadnezzar-like, and to my untrained taste it seemed as good fodder as any; but my tongue smarted and burned for some time after, from being pricked by the felt which covered the leaf. I recalled the practical joke of which my grandmother once made me the victim; she told me that to be beautiful, I needed only to rub my cheeks with mullein leaves, an experience which convinced me that there were other things far more desirable than beauty—comfort, for instance. This felt on the mullein is beautiful, when looked at through a microscope; it consists of a fretwork of little, white, sharp spikes. No wonder my cheeks were red one day and purple the next, and no wonder the sheep will not eat it unless starved! This frostlike felt covering not only keeps the mullein safe from grazing animals but it also keeps the water from evaporating from the leaf and this enables the plant to withstand drought. I soon discovered another means devised by the mullein for this same purpose, when I tried to dig up the plant with a stick; I followed its tap-root down far enough to understand that it was a sub-soiler and reached below most other plants for moisture and food. Although it was late autumn, the mullein was still in blossom; there were flowers near the tip and also one here and there on the seed-crowded stem. I estimated there were hundreds of seed-capsules on that one plant; I opened one, still covered with the calyx-lobes, and found that the mullein was still battling for survival; for I found this capsule and many others inhabited by little brown-headed white grubs, which gave an exhibition of St. Vitus dance as I laid open their home. They were the young of a snout beetle, which is a far more dangerous enemy of the mullein than is the sheep.

The mullein plant is like the old woman who lived in a shoe in the matter of blossom-children; she has so many that they are unkempt and irregular, but there are normally four yellow or white petals and a five-lobed calyx. I have never been able to solve the problem of the five stamens which, when the flower opens, are folded together in a knock-kneed fashion. The upper three are bearded below the anthers, the middle being the shortest. The lower two are much longer and have no fuzz on their filaments; they at first stand straight out, with the stigma between them; but after the upper anthers have shed their pollen, these stamens curve up like boars' teeth and splash their pollen on the upper petals, the stigma protruding desolately and one-sidedly below. Later the corolla, stamens and all, falls off, leaving the stigma and style attached to the seed-capsule.


1, 2. Mullein flowers in different stages.
3. Mullein seed enlarged.
4. A bit of Mullein leaf enlarged.

The color of the mullein flowers varies from lemon-yellow to white. The filaments are pale yellow; the anthers and pollen, orange. The seed-capsule is encased in the long calyx-lobes, and is shaped like a blunt egg. Cutting it in two crosswise, the central core, tough and flattened and almost filling the capsule, is revealed and, growing upon its surface, are numberless tiny, brown seeds, as fine as gunpowder. Later the capsule divides partially in quarters, opening wide enough to shake out the tiny seeds with every wandering blast. The seed, when seen through a lens, is very pretty; it looks like a section of a corncob, pitted and ribbed. A nice point of investigation for some junior naturalist is to work out the fertilization of the mullein flower, and note what insects assist. The mullein has another spoke in the wheel of its success. The seed, scattered from the sere and dried plants, settles comfortably in any place where it can reach the soil, and during the first season grows a beautiful velvety rosette of frosted leaves. No wonder Europeans grow it in gardens under the name of the "American velvet plant." These rosettes lie flat under the snow, with their tap-roots strong and already deep in the soil, and are ready to begin their work of food-making as soon as the spring sun gives them power.

Lesson CXLVI


Leading thought—The mullein has its leaves covered with felt, which prevents evaporation during the dry weather and also prevents animals from grazing upon the plant. It has a deep root, and this gives moisture and food beyond the reach of most other plants. It blossoms all summer and until the snow comes in the autumn, and thus forms many, many seeds, which the wind plants for it; and here in our midst it lives and thrives despite us.

Method—The pupils should have a field trip to see what plants are left uneaten in pastures, and thus learn where mullein grows best. The flower or seed stalk, with basal leaves and root, may be brought to the schoolroom for the lesson.


1. Where does the mullein grow? Do you ever see it in swamps or woodlands? Do cattle or sheep eat it? Why? Does it flourish during the summer drought? How is it clothed to prevent the evaporation of its sap? Look at a mullein leaf with a lens and describe its appearance.

2. What sort of a root has the mullein? How is its root adapted to get moisture and plant food which other plants cannot reach? Describe the flowering stalk. How are the leaves arranged on it and attached to it? Are there several branching flower stalks or a single one?

3. Describe the flower bud. Do the mullein flowers nearest the base or the tip begin to blossom first? Is this invariable, or do flowers open here and there irregularly on the stem during the season?

4. Describe the mullein flower. How many lobes has the calyx? Are these covered with felt? How many petals? Are there always this number? Are the petals of the same size? Are they always regular in shape?

5. How many stamens? How do the upper three differ from the lower two? Describe the style and stigma. What are the colors of petals, anthers and stigma? What insects do you find visiting the flowers?

6. Describe the seed-capsule, its shape and covering. Cut it across and describe the inside. Where are the seeds borne? Are there many? Look at the seed with a lens, and describe it. How does the capsule open and by what means are the seeds scattered?

7. Does the mullein grow from the seed to maturity in one year? How does it look at the end of the first season? Describe the winter rosette, telling how it is fitted to live beneath the snows of winter. What is the advantage of this habit?

8. Write a theme telling all the ways the mullein has of flourishing and of combating other plants.

"The mullein's pillar, tipped with golden flowers,

Slim rises upward, and yon yellow bird

Shoots to its top."

—"The Hill Hollow," A. B. Street.

"Sober dress never yet made you sullen,

Style or size never brought you a blush;

You're the envy of weavers, O, Mullein,

For no shuttle can mimic your plush.

With your feet in the sand you were born,

Woolly monk of the thorn-field and fallow,

But your heart holds the milk of the mallow,

And your head wears the bloom of the corn."

—Theron Brown.

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