Is it a weed or a plant? Common mullein & more

mullein flower in Batavia NY
Mullein flower. Photo courtesy John Jankowski

by Connie Oswald Stofko

John Jankowski of Batavia sent me a photo that he wanted me to identify, then asked, “Is it a weed or a plant?”

Now, usually I’m no help when people want a plant identified. I’m not a gardening expert, so I almost always have to tell people to contact the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in their county.

However, I happened to know this one because I have it in my yard. It’s mullein (pronounced mull-en).

Is it a flower or a weed? I thought I had an easy answer for that question, too.

Every time my sister comes to my house, she tells me it’s a weed. I think it’s cool and enjoy growing it in my garden, so it’s a plant.

It’s a “volunteer” and just showed up one year in my garden. The mound of fuzzy, light green leaves looked so attractive, I was sure I must have planted it the previous year and just lost the tag over the winter. When the tall flower spike appeared, visitors told me I had mullein.

I was ready to tell Jankowski that if he likes it, it’s a plant, and if he doesn’t want it, it’s a weed.

But after a little research, I saw that it’s not native plant to North America. While it’s not listed as invasive in New York, it is listed as invasive in Pennsylvania and 19 other states.

Then I wasn’t sure if it was okay to keep mullein in our gardens. I decided to check with John Farfaglia, extension educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Niagara County.

mullein plant in Batavia NY
Mullein plant. Photo courtesy John Jankowski

“It’s easy to control,” Farfaglia said. “If you want one here or there, it’s no big deal.”

He doesn’t recommend collecting mullein and planting it all over your garden because it will drop seeds and you may end up with more than you want. (But I can tell you from experience that even though the plant is big, a light tug will pull it right out.)

And the weed versus plant question?

“It’s considered a common weed,” Farfaglia said. Here’s an article about common mullein from the USDA Forest Service in a series called “Weed of the Week.”

Queen Anne's lace among monarda in Buffalo
Queen Anne’s lace among red monarda in a garden on South Buffalo Alive garden walk. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

“But other people tell me they think mullein is pretty,” Farfaglia said. “It is an interesting plant.”

Then we come back to the definition of a weed: “A plant out of place is a weed,” he said.

So in my garden, mullein is a plant. In my sister’s garden, it’s a weed.

Here are a three other plants that might show up in your yard. Should you keep them or pull them?

Queen Anne’s lace

While it isn’t native to North America, “I don’t look at that as invasive,” Farfaglia said. “It’s a common field plant and attracts beneficial insects. I don’t see it as a major threat. You can certainly allow it to be in your garden.”

pokeweed on Garden Walk Buffalo
Pokeweed in Buffalo garden. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Pokeweed

This is a pretty ornamental plant that is quite large and makes a bold statement, Farfaglia said.

Parts are edible, but can be poisonous if you prepare them improperly, and other parts are just plain poisonous. You can find pokeweed in natural settings, too.

Pokeweed does have the potential to become invasive because it has so many berries, he said.

lesser celandine in Buffalo NY by Mike Fabrizio
Lesser celandine. Photo courtesy Mike Fabrizio.

Lesser celandine

I’ve written about this plant– or should I say weed– before. Lesser celandine shows up in early spring and spreads and spreads and spreads.

You don’t want this in your lawn or garden!

It’s practically impossible to get all of the tubers out, Farfaglia said. When you see this next spring, take action to get rid of it! Learn strategies for getting rid of lesser celandine here.

 

 

 

 

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12 Comments on “Is it a weed or a plant? Common mullein & more

  1. Connie
    That’s the way I always looked at it too. When you think about it, most “weeds” are really just harmless plants that are native to the area. Some are attractive and some aren’t. It’s up to you to decide if you want to keep a few in your garden or not.

  2. Lots of “weeds” i love, but the biggest issue to me is being invasive or not. thanx for your info, i was considering the Lesser Calendine from my neighbors (down the street) but now know it won’t be my friend…. and FYI sometimes i just look at your photos for a little “pick me up”!

  3. I have a problem with gout weed. It also grows from tubers. I tried to
    cover with cardboard, but It didn’t help. Keeping it cut delays the growth, but coming from the yard next door, doesn’t help control it.

  4. I HAVE DATURA…..IN MANY PLACES. THIS YEAR. VERY TALL AND WIDE. I PULLED IT OUT WHEN IT GREW NEAR MY TOMATO PLANT. I know it is poisonous

  5. Although not an expert, I have studied herbal remedies for many years. Mullein flowers (Verbascum thapsus) have been used to treat coughs, congestion, and tuberculosis and were smoked to soothe pulmonary diseases. You can find this information in most books giving information about herbs as well as in Native American Herbal Remedies. The SEEDS however, are considered poisonous.

  6. So I purchased this then small plant for 5 bucks at a local chain nursery. It was labeled lambs ear. First year it grew to only 5 inches high, lovely and fuzzy with no flowers. Provided nice greenery. The next year maybe 10 inches high. So thus year it is 5 ft talk and sprouted the yellow flowers and sure looks just like Mullen in these photos. So in the end I planted and paid for this weed? Any comment appreciated. Thx

  7. So I purchased this then small plant for 5 bucks at a local chain nursery. It was labeled lambs ear. First year it grew to only 5 inches high, lovely and fuzzy with no flowers. Provided nice greenery. The next year maybe 10 inches high. So this year it is 5 ft tall and sprouted the yellow flowers and sure looks just like Mullen in these photos. So in the end I paid for and planted this weed? Any comment appreciated. Thx

  8. When I’ve had mullein in my yard, it didn’t grow the way you describe. As I recall, it’s a small plant one year, and the next year it gets the big stalk. Do you have any fuzzy plants that don’t have the five-foot stalk? It sounds to me like you might have a mullein plant that grew up near your lambs ear. To be sure, contact the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in your county. I hope that helps.

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