It’s still a good time to be harvesting mullein, so here’s a post on IDing this plant.
Mullein is a darling of the dry lands. It grows in dry, stony, well draining, usually disturbed soils, and self seeds readily making it abundant once established. It’s a biennial, growing for two years before it dies. It flowers in the second year in the summer, each plant sending up a tall spike that eventually turns into a seed stalk. I’ve seen a mullein flower stalk grow above the height of roof guttering, but mostly they’re up to shoulder height.
If you’re not sure where to look for them, try a river bed that is stony or dry. Farm paddocks often have mullein in them in drier climates too. Mullein grows all through Central, along the east coast at least as far south as Dunedin, and I’d guess it’s in the upper parts of the Southland rivers. It’s also in Fiordland though not so abundantly. I can’t imagine it doesn’t grow in Nelson and North Canty. Don’t know about the West Coast and up North but it’s such a common plant that it’d be worth looking around.
There are two main mulleins in NZ: Wooly mullein (Verbascum thapsus), and Moth Mullein (V virgatum). Both are medicinal. I’ve not used moth mullein, but its flowers are commonly used to make an infused oil to heal ear ache. Wooly mullein is a superb lung healing herb.
Wooly mullein has grey green leaves that are wooly. It has a distinctive rib on the back of the leaf, and they grow in rosettes, initially at ground level and then rising up when the plant sends up its flower stalk in the second year. Plants can range in size from small (hand sized) to massive (leaves reaching up to half a metre long). Smaller plants are found in drier spots, and the massive ones in places with good amounts of water.
A typical wooly mullein plant, early second year:
Old seed stalks from last year. Note the seed capsules (which contained many small seeds) are crowded on the stalks (see the top third of the stalk on the right), and the new plants in the foreground:
Moth mullein has much greener leaves. They’re not wooly but are textured with wavy margins. They also grow in rosettes, but don’t get very big – in a wet spring like this one you might find bigger plants, but mostly they are up to a handspan wide.
This plant looks a bit like foxglove (poisonous) and some other low growing weeds, so please use a good identification guide if you are harvesting it for medicine.
Moth mullein seed stalks showing the seed capsules more sparse than wooly mullein: