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.
“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.”
“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.”
This is a pretty ornamental plant that is quite large and makes a bold statement, Farfaglia said.
Pokeweed does have the potential to become invasive because it has so many berries, he said.
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.