Driving through the American countryside, especially across semi-arid grasslands of the West, one readily concludes that common mullein is native to North America. Yet, this widespread plant, easily recognized by its tall, flowering stalk, is native to Eurasia and North Africa; it was introduced to America by European colonists in the early 1700s and was initially culivated for medicinal purposes.
Favoring abundant sunshine and well-drained soil, common mullein is a biennial, requiring two years to complete its life cycle. Following germination, the plant forms a rosette of large, velvety leaves which persists through the following winter; as the second spring progresses, a tall stalk is produced (often rising 6 feet or more) on which numerous, compact, yellow flowers develop. These flowers, which bloom in sequence from late June through mid September, are pollinated by bees, other insects or wind currents; an abundant crop of tiny seeds, eaten by goldfinches and buntings, remain on the drying stalk through the winter and are eventually scattered by the wind. Able to survive long periods of dormancy, mullein seeds are programmed to await ideal growing conditions and may not germinate for decades.
Like other prolific aliens, such as dandelions and starlings, common mullein owes its success in North America to the human tendency to manipulate natural ecosystems. Once introduced into a new environment, the reproductive potential of alien species is often impossible to contain and, to the chagrin of gardeners, farmers and ranchers, they become naturalized "weeds or pests". Since common mullein is clearly here to stay, we might as well enjoy the seasonal beauty of these tall, sun-loving plants.