Sunday, July 10, 2011

White Mullein

What’s blooming in the area: Trumpet creeper, Japanese honeysuckle, silver lace vine, tall and red yuccas, daylily, Russian sage, buddleia, hollyhock, datura, sweet pea, purple phlox, larkspur, Shasta daisy, purple coneflower, zinnia, squash, alfalfa, brome grass; pods on sweet peas.

Beyond the walls and fences: Tamarix, Apache plume, cholla cactus, Virginia creeper, fernleaf and leatherleaf globemallows, cheese mallow, scarlet bee blossom, white and yellow evening primroses, velvetweed, whorled milkweed, bindweed, stickleaf, purple mat flower, goat’s head, white sweet clover, buffalo gourd, silver leaf nightshade, Queen Anne’s lace, western goat’s beard, Hopi tea, spiny lettuce, horseweed, paper flower, golden hairy and strap-leaf spine asters, native and common dandelions; buds on old man cactus and Santa Fe thistle; berries formed on Russian olive, beginning to emerge on junipers.

In my yard, looking east: Winecup mallow, sidalcea, baby’s breath, snow-in-summer, Jupiter’s Beard, Maltese cross, bouncing Bess peaked, large-leaf soapwort, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, Saint John’s wort; buds on Shirley poppies; oriental poppy leaves turning brown.

Looking south: Floribunda and rugosa roses, oxalis, tomatilla; raspberries dried up before they were fully ripe.

Looking west: Lilies, Rocky mountain beardtongue, ladybells, Goodness Grows speedwell, blue flax, catmints, first calamintha florets, flowering spurge, sea lavender, white mullein; buds on Mönch aster.

Looking north: Golden spur columbine, coral beardtongue, Hartweig evening primrose, butterfly weed, Mexican hat, Moonshine and Parker’s Gold yarrows, chocolate flower, coreopsis, blanket flower, anthemis, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemum.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy, moss rose, impatiens, nicotiana, tomato; buds on snapdragon.

Inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern, pomegranate.

Animal sightings: Hummingbird, other small birds, small bees, hornets, grasshopper, cricket, small flying insects, harvester and small black ants. Someone’s black cat has taken to coming into the yard at night to hunt whatever burrowed under the cholla and hide from the surrounding dogs and coyotes.

Weather: Heat and fire continue to take more out of the ground than I can replace; short gentle rain Friday night; 15:46 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: My white mullein sat out last year. When it didn’t appear, I assumed it had finally died in the cold winter.

I bought it in the fall of 1997 when I was trying white flowering plants along the garage that were tall enough to see from the house. The nursery said its spike could reach 36" and the base spread to 24.

Album is a horticultural selection of Verbascum chaixii, a species with light yellow flowers on towering stalks that rise from nests of fuzzy grey leaves. Once the plants become established, the stalks branch.

My spikes never got more than a foot high, and were always hidden by the surrounding phlox. There’s only ever been one stalk, and some years not even that. Indeed, there have been years when the leaves didn’t emerge.

The native range of nettle-leaved mullein reaches across central Europe from Italy to Poland. On its southern boundary, from Spain to Yugoslavia, it evolved into the subspecies, chaixii. From the Balkans north it’s identified as austriacum, a plant used in the Giulia region of Italy’s Friuli-Venezia to treat hemorrhoids, clean eye problems and for a "spring cure." To the northeast, from Romania into Russia, it morphed into orientale.

In southern Poland, Wohciech Baba found austriacum was a migratory plant in semi-arid limestone grasslands. He observed 100 plots in the upland Ojców National Park each June for five years. Mullein was one that persisted in some, disappeared from others only to reappear another year, disappeared completely or appeared in new locations.

Some of the movement could easily be attributed to the fact the species easily self-seeds. With his annual visits, he couldn’t judge if the reappearing plants were new seedlings or ones like mine that had gone dormant for a year.

This year I discovered the paddle-shaped grey leaves the first of June when I was planting seeds in the area. Two weeks later a flower stalk shot up. It began blooming June 22 and has been opening florets if different locations up, down and around the spike since.

I must confess I not only stopped looking for the perennial member of the figwort family in spring, but didn’t pay it much notice when it did bloom. I saw the florets flushed with deep pink as I walked by, but never stopped to look.

Then, two weeks ago, I sat on the ground to look for the beard of the Husker White penstemon and noticed the flowers for the first time. In the center of the five white petals was a yellow-green ring that threw out a long, nearly translucent tongue to catch pollen from passing insects. On each petal, a thin arch of purple supported by three pillars bordered the ring.

More extraordinary than the style were the five purple filaments that resembled a spider’s hairy legs. Each ended in a bright orange shoe.

My mind flashed back to someone I hadn’t thought about in 30 years, a woman in Chicago who edited a science fiction fanzine called Purple and Orange. Young and outrageous as we were in those days before punk was even a word, ready to redefine ourselves every day, Joy would sometimes come to work with her hair dyed orange, sometimes purple.

She wasn’t particularly interested in plants. She published, and sometimes wrote, fiction based on characters from Battlestar Galactica. However, she did tell me about the recently released cult film, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

My white mullein belongs in such a film. It has the necessary europamittel ancestors.

Baba, Wohciech. “The Small-Scale Species Mobility in Calcareous Grasslands - Example from Southern Poland,” Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae 74:53-64:2005.

Lokar, Laura Coassini and Livio Poldini. “Herbal Remedies in the Traditional Medicine of the Venezia Giulia Region (North East Italy),” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 22:231-279:1988.

Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. Notes on Verbascum chaixii distribution on Flora Europaea website.

Photograph: White mullein, 4 July 2011.

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