The mullein wildflower has large soft velvety leaves with stiff hairs. The plant has about 40 different names, one of which is "maiden's rouge." According to country lore, young girls can use the leaves by rubbing them against their cheeks, giving their face a rosy tint.
The tall-stalked flower can reach fourto five feet high with yellow blossoms at the top. Each blossom will last about a day, with new flowers appearing daily.
The flower was a transplant from Europe during the 1800s, and has claimed the entire United States as its new home. In fact, by an interesting twist of nomenclature, in Europe it is called the American velvet plant.
After its flowering season, the mullein's dry brown stalk will remain long into the winter. You may see children dueling with the stalks or using them as javelins. The ancient Greeks and Romans dipped the dead stalks in tallow to use as ceremonial torches.
Each mullein plant produces over 1,500 seeds that are very small and can remain dormant in the soil for up to 100 years. A mullein seed will germinate with the occurrence of the right conditions, which is newly disturbed soil, such as along the edge of a dirt road. The plant will live for no more than three years.
The mullein plant is part of the verbascum genus, which derives its name from the Latin barbascum, meaning "with beard." This is in reference to the woolly quality of the plant's soft leaves.
The hairs on the leaves are actually forked, giving an abrasive feature to the leaves. That's what makes the mullein an effective substitute for rouge - when rubbed on the face, the abrasion makes the cheeks attractively rosy. This technique was often used by country girls in rural areas where cosmetics were not available or allowed.
When I went out recently to see the great blue heron rookery with Ann Rice, Ellen Kenny and Claudia Altemus, we encountered a mullein wildflower standing tall along a dirt road. Neither I nor the ladies used its leaves as a natural rouge, but we stopped to admire it all the same.