Bassics of botany: Verbascum sinuatum and rotundifolium – Mullein

Verbascum flower close up – but which one?

I’ve noticed tall plants with yellow flowers and started taking pictures of them, quickly realising that I might be seeing more than one similar species. This happens often, and thumbing through the flower guides, I’m reminded of the process wikipedia calls ‘disambiguation’: looking for the crucial features which tell you if you’ve got two examples of plant A, or one of A and one of B. The guide I use (see Resources and Links) helpfully puts this sort of  feature in italics.












Left: V. rotundifolium. 

Below:  V. sinuatum (as is photo used at start)





So these are the results so far for Verbascum: both plants have a rosette of large leaves at the base, from which rises a tall (60-70cm) flower stem, bearing many yellow flowers which have purple hairy stamens. I’m pretty sure I’ve got V. sinuatum whose key distinguishing features are a branched flower-bearing stem or inflorescence, stamens of equal length, and basal leaves with wavy edges. I’m slightly less confident that another plant is V. rotundifolia, whose key differences are that the inflorescence is a single spike, that two stamens are longer than the other three, and the basal leaves are rounder. Another possible here is V. blattaria: the disambiguation isn’t yet complete. Below: flower of V. rotundifolium showing unequal stamens.

Mullein comes from the French molène, from mou/molle meaning soft, describing the  soft, flabby leaves (Latin mollis – hence to mollify).  Verbascum is a large genus of about 250 species, well- known in gardens because they’re tall, long-lasting, and tolerate dry soil (they tend to have long tap roots). They are mostly biennial – in the first year they grow a flat rosette of leaves, often very large, and the second year a tall flower-spike. I have read that the stems are an indication of any contamination of the soil, which if present makes them crooked.

I’m featuring this flower because, like all the flowers in this ‘Bassics of botany’ series, it was well known in ancient Greece – apparently the tall stems were set alight and carried in funeral processions.  Maybe this habit, or just the appearance,  is recalled in the Occitan names la candela de St Joan, and lo candelièr.

Some mulleins were, and are still, widely used in herbal remedies, especially for asthma, sore throats and lung problems – but paradoxically also in herbal cigarettes. One site insists:  ‘Mullein is a fine medicinal for the lungs, even when you smoke it.’ I wonder if the fleshy lung-shaped leaves make this an example of the Doctrine of Signatures – the idea that plants are divinely marked in shape to show humans their uses?

Anyway, this serves as a link to Hippocrates of Cos (c. 469-399 BCE), the ‘father of medicine’ who established a school on the islandof Cos at the shrine of Asclepius ( see this an entangled bank entry). Hippocrates taught all over Greece, but left no text of his own – we have the writings of those he taught.  He proposed the idea that illness originates in physical causes acting on the body, rather than in supernatural intervention. He advocated passive treatment – bed, rest, care, diet – very like any physician up till about 1800, and his concentration on the physical opened the door for systematic herbalism. His followers codified the famous Hippocratic Oath, sworn by English physicians till the last century, and their texts, known as the Corpus Hippocraticum, contains descriptions of between 300 and 400 medicinal plants as used by Hippocrates, including rosemary,  thyme,  mint, fennel,  caraway,  rose,  cinnamon,  clove,  anise,  frankincense,  myrrh, coriander, garlic, opium,  belladonna,  and mandrake.

I found a mention of using boiled mullein to reduce swelling in a tract on ulcers, attributed to Hippocrates but presumably part of this Corpus. If you’re interested, this tract, which you can find here, is worth reading as an example of the level of detailed observation which went into Hippocratic practice.

That’s enough on him for a botany blog, rather than a Classics lecture.

Music: the bassist Avishai Cohen, former sideman of Chick Corea, and who now leads his own trio.  From the album Continuo (2006), this is the track Nu Nu, featuring also the oud player Amos Hoffman.

Next: Woke up this mornin’ and my pressed flower was gone – back to the blues, and more plant A/plant B angst.




Filed under Verbascum

12 responses to “Bassics of botany: Verbascum sinuatum and rotundifolium – Mullein

  1. chezbon

    So that’s what I have in the garden! V. sinuatum, looks exactly like the photo you posted. I’ve not gotten around to looking it up in my native mediterranean plant book, now I don’t have to.

  2. Love your use of “disambiguation,” which gets to the root of why I often find field guides frustrating. What I’m looking at is almost NEVER indisputably what’s in the picture. Never having had a friend who was an expert and could take me on a stroll while talking about what we see, I’m never sure I’ve got it. I think Ceridwen is so successful because she had a father who talked her through the woods in her formative years. But you’re doing a very fine job, in my opinion. I’m certainly willing to believe the thing is what you say it is. Can’t get the Cohen piece to play. This one does:
    (And how wonderful it is!)

    • As a rather bookish person, I find life itself is rarely like the guides say it is – so it’s always both amazing and a bit scary. Sorry again about the video, but thanks so much for the suggested alternative, which is indeed wonderful and gives you Avishai the showman at his best. I did toy with posting a live version for that reason, but I like the oud (there will be more) and I reckoned that not everyone would have your patience for a 10 minute-plus clip. I think I’ll have to market a ‘Mediterranean botany – the greatest hits’ album, what do you think?

  3. Ceridwen

    I’m very fond of this genus (I won’t try to be specific!) particularly because it’s one of those plants that spring up on disturbed ground, probably because of the intrinsic longevity of its seeds. ” In 1879, W.J. Beal in Michigan, buried samples of seeds of 23 species in moist sand as an experiment in soil ‘seed bank’ longevity. Seeds of the moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria) from this experiment germinated in 1970.”
    Talking of moths, Verbascum is the food plant of the very striking yellow and black caterpillar of the Mullein Moth Cucullia verbasci (see large colonies of which may destroy the whole plant.

    • Thanks for the info about the moth caterpillar, I’ll look out for it (though it may be getting too late in the year). Fascinating about the long life of the seeds – of course this is one reason why plants can survive environmental catastrophes so much better than animals. I’d like to come back to that, and to the character of ‘coloniser’ that some plants have – the social and political life of plants! For Verbascum, it may be related to the low leaves, which would be overshadowed on, say, an entangled bank.

  4. I just returned here and was surprised to see how many times you’ve posted entries since my last visit, especially since I subscribed to your blog that visit. I re-subscribed and hope that I receive notifications now of your posts. You see, I find your posts fascinating and the photography stunning. WordPress needs to get its act together. In the meantime, it looks like I’ve got some catching up to do.

    • Well, I’ve always had you down on the list as a subscriber – don’t know why you weren’t getting notices. Hope the re-try works.Yes, I feel I did start off with maybe too much of a rush, but I was keen and I just wanted to get a few things up there. Like most bloggers, I’ll probably slow down now – especially in summer when there’s so much else to do! Thanks for keeping in touch.

  5. did you put in link to in our time on hippocratic oath? i found myself thinking of gato barbieri when i heard that music – i still find that early fenix album of his one of the most wondrous things – like astral weeks, it’s the top cat in a club of one

    • No, I didn’t put that link – not aware of it, but will look and edit it in. Good reminder of Gato Barbieri – hadn’t listened to him for ages, maybe I have old stuff on vinyl still, such as the Last Tango soundtrack, but I have a feeling I’ve lost/lent them. Since you mention it in the same sentence as AW, I’ll look up Fenix, which isn’t on Spotify – somehow, what I want seldom is. At this moment listening to El Pampero via Spotify – I’m sure that’s one I had.

  6. I had the two species confused for a bit. I don’t think either of the two you have up there is rotundifolia, but mind I’m not a botanist. I’ll e-mail you a photo of what I think is rotundifolia.

  7. Pingback: Fitting in – the lifestyles of plants | an entangled bank

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