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illustration of birds and plant

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 readi …

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