Beauty in Common Places

Cassins and Mullein by Monique Wales

Two Poet-Professors Turn a Garden Weed into a Wonder.

When we bought our little cape house, we were astonished (not to mention dismayed) to find the property overrun by a yellow tower of a weed. This fuzzy-leafed giant sported a tubular crown of tiny yellow flowers—a cross between a delphinium and a stalk of corn.

To better understand our problem, we responded as professor-poets. “Let’s read up on this thing!” one of us proposed. The other cheerfully agreed. We ended up discovering and rediscovering our plant in everything we were reading—and not just the first Wikipedia article on it that everyone else would know. There’s plenty there, though, telling even the casually curious about all the things mullein can cure, everything from aches and pains to respiratory ailments and gastric disorders.

Digging into the old books of the 19th century, we found out some people didn’t think much of the plant. One old almanac downplayed its uses, noting that “the species [is] used to some extent” to cure “a few ailments.” The same skeptic was disgusted by “negligent, slovenly farmer[s]” who would let this monster “bloom at will.” At this point in our reading, we looked up with guilty faces. We found ourselves somewhere between those bad gardeners who let the plant grow willy-nilly wild and those others who referred to the plant, perhaps somewhat degradingly, as “cowboy toilet paper.”

But we quickly agreed that we wanted to know the plant’s uses, not its limits. How could this weed be a treasure? How can its bounty enrich our lives?

It didn’t take long for us to have our answer in—what else?—our reading. Two prominent New England writers captured the essence of this plant. Sarah Orne Jewett’s late 19th-century novel, The Country of the Pointed Firs, is based on the fictional travels of a woman visiting an herbalist in Maine, while learning about the chillingly lonely lives of the island dwellers there, one of whom is Joanna, a woman living alone on a desolate expanse known as Shell Heap Island.

Our garden weed figures in a cameo role in the plot here. Joanna is imagined to stay alive on her island, fed only on blackberries and mullein “in great quantities.”

In his collected autobiographical sketches and letters, Specimen Days, Walt Whitman nutshells our own attitude toward the so-called weed. He seeks to commune with it, saying he muses with the plants as comrades, coming and going with them and the seasons. Whitman comes right out and preaches against the widespread disdain felt toward the plant, as illustrated by the earlier almanac critic and, for Whitman, short-sighted farmers:

The farmers, I find, think the mullein a mean unworthy weed, but I have grown to a fondness for it. Every object has its lesson, and closing the suggestion of everything else—and lately I sometimes think all is connected for me in these hardy, yellowflower’d weeds. As I come down the lane early in the morning, I pause before their soft wool-like fleece and stem and broad leaves, glittering with countless diamonds.

We loved this perspective so much, it inspired us to discover how we could use the mullein as a source of true inspiration. Here’s what we did: We planted it in our side garden, once an arid and ant-ridden hill, now the seat for three gargantuan plants, symbolic of our family. When one of our mulleins began to wilt, we stripped the leaves and used the stalk (also known as Aaron’s Rod, a biblical reference to the blooming staff of Moses’s brother) to hold up our drooping hollyhock.

Literature also reminds us of the many homeopathic uses of the edible leaves and flowers. If you catch the mullein in bloom (which you can, at some point between June and September), the small, tender yellow petals can be dried and made into tinctures, teas, flour, and so much more. We headed out to the garden with a knife and cut away browning leaves near the bottom of the plant. We laid these out for inspection and trimming.

In Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, the narrator visits her friend and host, the herbalist Mrs. Todd, who reminds herself somewhat fretfully “not to forget to turn a few late mullein leaves that were drying on newspaper in the little loft.” At the end of our own harvest, we followed Mrs. Todd’s example. But we used a brown paper bag for the base of ours instead.

As Whitman reminds us that the mullein is an object lesson in the connectedness of all things, so its beauty and utility are also connected—the sheer size that made it a nuisance and a shame to the farmer also gives us an infinite number of ways to put it to common use.

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