I am keenly aware that one person’s weed is another person’s treasure. This is the case with one of my favorite uninvited garden guests, mullein. Verbascum thapsus is a class 3 noxious weed and a nuisance for farmers. In the children’s garden, it is a much appreciate biennial plant. Nicknamed the toilet paper plant, mullein’s fuzzy silver leaves are caressed and petted by children then used in all manner of imaginative ways to carpet bug and fairy houses or garden shrines. I like mullein for this and many other reasons.
Mullein is a biennial which means it grows one year and flowers the next. Leaves are large – 12” to 18” ovals covered with soft fuzz that also contain sharp bristle hairs. Contrary to its nickname, I would not recommend wiping your butt with this leaf, no siree. For emergency toilet paper, I would pick leaves that are cool and soothing like dock or malva but that’s another story. Mullein is a medicinal plant used to heal earaches and lung ailments. Dried leaves are used in teas and smoked. Flowers are infused in oil and used for ear infections.
In its second year of life, a single, impressive flower stalk emerges from the large rosette of silver fuzz. Rising to over 7 feet tall, it is covered with yellow flowers that attract umpteen pollinators. Flowers wither and are replaced by seed pods that contain thousands of tiny seeds. One flower stalk can produce more than a half million seeds, this is why it is such a nuisance for farmers. Many mullein plants will produce additional flower heads along the central stalk. Dried mullein flower stalks can be dipped in tallow or wax and used for torches.
Last year, a monster mullein grew and flowered and dried in my front garden. It was 8 feet tall with two dozen side stalks. This was the ideal specimen for making torches. I didn’t want to spread seeds everywhere so I put down a tarp and carefully cut the flower stalk then shook out the seeds on the tarp. I let the stalk dry completely then harvested the side shoots. The flower heads were about 10 inches long and the rest of the stalk “handle” was 12 inches or longer.
Since I didn’t have a ready supply of tallow, I picked up some old candles and a deep, round metal pan at Goodwill. Wax melts at 104 degrees F so I didn’t need a lot of heat to melt the candles. I dipped the flower heads then let the wax harden. I added wax until they had doubled in size. I let the torches cool completely then I lit one. I held the flame until some wax melted and the mullein caught fire. I buried the stalk “handle” in the ground and watch the flames grow. The torch made 8”-10” flames and burned for about a half hour – so cool. Flame on!