When fresh out of college, I was still cast in the mold of a biologist and I spoke like one. I used scientific names as if they were nicknames and could roll them off like nobody’s business. Common name were, well, common and not the language of the research journals that I was trained to, well… research. Common names can be extremely misleading since folks tend to assign their own names to things (like “Mudbugs” for crayfish, for instance). It was only when I entered the field of Interpretation that I started to use common names when identifying things for other people. It was much easier to connect people to an identifier such as “Burning Bush” or “Wahoo” than Euonymus atropurpureus. It was a hard habit to break but break it I did – mostly.
Today, I still use scientific names, but only when that name tells an interesting story and only AFTER relating the common name. Some names have never left my head, however, and they pop into my head before I can even react properly. Peromyscus maniculatus, the fancy name for Deer Mouse, is one of those automatic names along with Turdus migratorius (aka Robin). So it was when I encountered a specimen of Verbascum thapsis recently.
It took me a minute to recall the real…er, common name… of this plant but the name “Common Mullein” finally surfaced. At this stage of the winter anything green becomes eye-catching and the fuzzy verdant leaves of this plant popped out from their brown grass surroundings. The flower-like leaf clusters are called basal rosettes – geek speak for the first year’s growth. In their second year they will each send up a tremendous flowering spike some six feet tall.
The dried stalks of 2 year old Mulleins are a regular sight in the winter landscape, but one must look downward to see the basal leaves that sprouted the previous season. They are worthy of closer examination. Among the many confusing common names of this plant, Feltwort and Velvet Dock precisely refer to the fuzzy leaves of the basal rosette. The leaves are incredibly hairy.
Of course, plants can’t really have hair so the reptilian brain biologist in me is tempted to inform you that these “hair-like” things are called trichomes. Since even hard-core plant biologists don’t use this cryptic term, I will instead simply label these Mullein leaves as pubescent. I did not make that up; it is an actual term with the same root word as puberty in which young human become fuzzy. Mullein leaves, if they could talk would, therefore, have cracking voices and hormonal difficulties if they were human. They are not human so we can move on in relative comfort.
The pubescent fuzz on a Mullein leaves are in the form of star clusters on top of short stalks. They extend several millimeters above the surface of the leaf and create a felty surface that is extremely soft to the touch. In some parts of the country these leaves are referred to as Cowboy Toilet Paper but I will not elaborate on this point! More importantly, my mission here is to get you to touch one of these leaves on a sunny cold day – put it up to your cheeks (no, not those cheeks…the ones on your face) and you’ll notice that they are warm to the touch.
I was handling the Mullein leaves on a day when the temperature was hovering just above freezing and some of the leaves were near body temperature (or so they seemed). There is some belief that these “hairs” serve to create an insulating blanket of air to keep the tender cells from freezing. Studies have shown that an average leaf will be around 8 degrees F warmer than a shaved leaf even without the effect of direct sunlight. This insulating blanket also keeps the plant from losing too much water, but that is another issue which needs more study. Yet another school of thought maintains that the fuzz discourages leaf munching herbivores such as rabbits and deer.
Perhaps all the above play a role in the fuzziness factor of the Common Mullein, but the heat factor is undeniable. I unfolded the leaves of several plants and discovered dozens of insects hiding out in the warm micro climate. The previous night had been well below freezing and it was clear that all these critters had huddled there for comfort.
Among the menagerie of beastlets hanging around a Woolly Bear Caterpillar, a pair of midges (see above), a Rove Beetle, and an unidentified black beetle with a red thorax were among those present (see below). The last named beetle (which I probably could have identified by scientific name four decades ago) appeared as if suspended in space above the leaf because it was sitting atop a stellar array of trichomes.
I will stop this discussion of Mullein leaves at this point because I realize that once a statement like “atop a stellar array of trichomes” makes it into a piece there is nothing more that can be said.