Many say a weed is a plant growing in the wrong place or one you don’t want, but Ralph Waldo Emerson said a weed is “A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.” Although many call pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) weeds, they are two to consider growing.
Virtues of pokeweed and mullein
Both are tall—up to 10 feet at maturity—and can be ornamental transition plants between a groomed garden and a wilder area.
Pokeweed—also known as pokeberry, red ink plant, and pigeon berry—is a native perennial that makes an elegant addition to the late fall garden with its magenta stems and gracefully pendulous deep purple berries. Birds, especially robins and catbirds, enjoy feasting on pokeweed berries.
Mullein is an introduced biennial with thick, fuzzy grey-green “woolly” stems and foliage, and a distinctive tall, bright-yellow flower spike in its second year that makes an exclamation point in the summer garden. Common mullein is also called flannel-leaf, velvet plant, and Jacob’s staff.
How they grow
Pokeweed and mullein both grow well in full sun, prefer gravelly soils, and are often found in fencerows, pastures, cemeteries, roadsides, and other disturbed areas. Pokeweed likes some moisture and can tolerate partial shade, while mullein requires lots of sun and prefers dry soil. Both are well established throughout the eastern United States.
Poke seeds germinate in mid-spring to early summer where the berries fall to the ground in autumn, then leaf out and grow rapidly. Leaves are lance-shaped, deep green, and can be up to 10 inches in length. The trunk or stem is a deep red. Long racemes of white blooms appear from July through September. The flowers produce elegant grape-like clusters of deep purple berries in the fall. Flowering continues until frost with some plants having both flowers and berries at the same time.
In its first year, mullein produces a low rosette of leaves up to 24 inches in diameter. The succeeding growing season, vivid yellow flowers bloom from June through August. The individual flowers are short lived. They are open to pollinators for one day only, from just before dawn to mid-afternoon. If an open flower has not been pollinated, it can self-pollinate.
Pokeweed probably gets its name from the Native American Algonquin word “poken” meaning bloody, referring to the red juice from the fruiting berries, which produces an effective writing ink and fabric dye. Native Americans once used pokeberry dye to decorate their horses.
Mullein is an ancient plant. Yellow mullein flowers were used in the fourth century B.C. as a hair dye, and early Romans dipped the flowering stalks into tallow for use as torches. Native Americans smoked the dried leaves and roots to treat asthma. Europeans, who used the flowers for tea and the plant as a medicinal herb, introduced it to America in the mid-1700s.
Cautions and Controls
Pokeweed and common mullein can be useful and ornamental additions to the landscape provided you keep them under control. Both form large taproots and reseed prolifically—48,000 seeds from a single pokeweed plant; over 100,000 seeds from a mullein. Their seeds can remain viable in the soil for decades.
Control pokeweed by pulling out the young seedlings in the spring. Other methods come into play with larger plants and their tap roots. Repeatedly chopping down the hollow stem and removing a major portion of the taproot is a start. If chemical treatments are necessary, paint both sides of the stem with an herbicide in accordance with the label.
Be aware that every part of the pokeweed plant—from roots to leaves to those gorgeous berries—is poisonous. Even though pokeweed inspired the 1969 Tony Joe White song “Poke Salad Annie” to celebrate “poke salat,” ingestion of any part of pokeweed is not recommended.
The key to effective mullein control is preventing seed production or germination. Frost will kill the plant in the second year, but the tall stem persists like a skeleton into the third year before toppling. Any broadcasted seeds will remain in the soil, so be ready to dig or pull young seedlings. Sow grasses and other plants on bare soil to shade and crowd out mullein seeds, thus reducing their chance of germinating.
A Second Look?
A weed by any other name . . . may still be a weed, leaving you to decide if pokeweed or mullein are worthy of a place in your garden.
Article written by Sally Wheeler, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer.