By Robyn Franks
Special to Plumas News
Most of us dislike the yellow star thistle — a spiky plant that has become a common pest plant throughout California. Or how about the innocent looking ice plant that was brought to our state to help us with erosion but has the opposite effect? Both are invasive plants that bring more harm than benefits. Plumas County acts as host to many “bad guy” plants. One of those plants is the woolly mullein.
Mullein, a native of Asia, was brought to California in the 1880s. Settlers intentionally packed the seeds to use them to stun fish which would then float to the surface for easy catching — a practice that is illegal today.
A mullein is easily identifiable by the tall stalk that originates from a silver green rosette. The woolly leaves are fuzzy and can cause skin irritations or itching. During its second year of growth, the plant develops a flowering spike that can grow up to 10 feet. Each shoot produces up to 250,000 seeds that are viable for decades. The flowering portion produces much pollen which attracts the bees. The bees in turn do not spend as much time pollinating other local meadow flowers and natural flora.
Once a mullein has gone to seed, it is nearly impossible to eradicate them from that area or even your yard. In fact, the mullein is one of the first plants to grow in disturbed areas such as where forest fires have occurred, or the soil has been disturbed by grading or cattle roaming. Mullein are a problem for agricultural crops, a host to insect pests, its seeds are toxic to fish and can it be nearly impossible to eliminate once established by overcrowding our meadows.
Mullein leaves grown in controlled conditions have been used in tea to with therapeutic results and benefits. However, no approved drugs are used from the plant. Wild mullein grows aggressively without any natural enemies. Cattle, deer, and rodents will not eat it.
So, what should we consider doing? Our neighbor, Lassen National Park, takes invasive plants seriously. In fact, the park has a hot line that visitors can use if they spot one. Software is used to map areas of infestation. The park organizes volunteers to come “pull” the plants. Woolly mulleins are #3 on its Most Unwanted List. https://www.nps.gov/lavo/learn/nature/non-native-invasive-plants.htm
We may not have the resources to do what Lassen is doing, but we can still help our meadows, lakes, and the areas scarred by fire.
First, early summer is the best time to stop the spread. Mulleins have a single tap root and can usually be hand pulled up and left where it was growing. However, in late summer the removed flowering portion must be placed in a bag because it has already been pollinated and will go to seed. An established clump of mullein can number in hundreds. Each pulled plant helps, do what you can.
Second, educate your neighbors, children, the community about mulleins. The more people who are pulling them up, the less impact mulleins will have. Organize group mullein pulls. Lake Davis shoreline and meadows have thousands that need attention.
Take a walk, enjoy the beauty of the area, and make a difference at the same time.