Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 15, 2008

Holy Hig Candlewort!

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:50 pm

  Two days ago I was driving down a long country road scanning the late afternoon countryside for signs of November nature.  The route was west of Saline and the gently rolling landscape was garbed in the muted browns and tans one would expect for this time of year.  Many of the fields had been freshly turned and their expanses of exposed black soil were still raw and moist. Against this backdrop, a flash of roadside green – a flash of tall roadside green – caught my eye.  It was a Mullein plant in summer mode.

  I did a turn-around and came back to confirm that my eyes had not deceived me.  Sure enough, what stood before me was a stately seven foot Mullein plant (see above) acting as if it were a sweltering August afternoon. It had recently completed the flowering cycle and was just beginning to set seeds. Every leaf was vibrant green and complete. You may not think this a remarkable thing, but when you consider that nearly every other Mullein plant in the region – indeed in all the north country -now stands dead and brown, there is definitely something going on with this individual. We’ve had several heavy frosts already. The pale brown foxtail grasses and withering goldenrods surrounding it are witness to this.

  Take a good close look (here) and you can verify what I am talking about. The leaves are untouched by Jack Frost and the slender brown pistil portions of each former flower are still in evidence. Normally, these biennial plants begin to grow in early summer from a leafy rosette (cluster of ground hugging leaves). The flowering stalks begin to peek out by mid July (see here an example from July 10) and come to full flower by August. Occasionally, some individuals flower into September but that’s about it. The Stalk, up to eight feet tall, bears yellow flowers and eventually ripens into a dark brown seedhead packed with rounded seed capsules. Once this final mission is complete, the whole plant dies and the next generation is generated from the scattering of thousands of tiny seeds. Just down the road from this late bloomer, all the other Mulleins were leafless stalks. They had followed the book. Apparently our green giant couldn’t read!

  As literate or illiterate plants, Mulleins have always attracted attention. It seems that nearly every human culture has given them a different name. Hig Candlewort, Ice Leaf, Shepherd’s Club, and Candlestick Plant are just a few of the varied labels.  I used to call them Dirt Spears because the dead stalks, when pulled up whole, performed admirably as hand-thrown missiles. The “war-heads” on these missiles were the exploding dirt clods which were glorious in effect when detonating on your former best friend’s back.  The candle name extends from their use as tallow-dipped torches – you know, those kind used by the angry villagers when they raided Frankenstein’s Castle.

 The common name Mullein apparently came from the Old English “Muleyn” which meant something that is woolen. This name is probably the most scientific of the bunch because it references the dense wooly pelt that covers the leaves of this plant. There is little doubt that this fur coating served to keep our late season plant in the green for as long as it has.

 I will be mentally pulling for the Saline Mullein to see if it survives the frosty weeks ahead. It has already beaten the odds in an impressive way. It is inevitable, though, that it will turn brown and die. When this happens, I’ll see if I can stop by and physically pull it up. Just for old time’s sake, I will then give it a proper send off and launch it into the air as a Dirt Spear.

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