Common Mullein

Common or woolly mullein, an invader from Eurasia, is not as benign as once believed. It is taking over thousands of acres of habitat across the West and Midwest.

I was at The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve near Carey, Idaho a month or so ago. In their pollinator garden was a huge plant with hairy leaves and a long single seed stalk just starting to form. I recognized it at once as common mullein, also known as woolly mullein, a pervasive weed in much of the country.

I asked the caretaker if I could pull it out and he laughed and told me that he had asked the same question and was told an emphatic “NO!” and that he would understand when it started to flower.

Now, I get that the flowers can be attractive to pollinators and we need to encourage and help pollinators every chance we get. However, mullein is an exotic weed, native to Eurasia. It is aggressive and outcompetes native plants.

I remember many years ago seeing a lot of mullein alongside roads in the Big Lost valley. I questioned a weed expert about that, wondering why this obvious invader wasn’t being determinedly treated with herbicide. He told me not to worry, that, “It won’t go anywhere.” This viewpoint was common among weed eradication professionals and is typified by this statement from my Wildflowers of Craters of the Moon National Monument app on my cellphone: “Fortunately it [mullein] doesn’t compete well and isn’t considered a very serious weed.”

I can’t disagree more. Last year in South Dakota, we saw thousands of acres dominated by mullein. When I say dominated, I mean there was mullein and just about nothing else. That is serious. Closer to home, I have watched mullein steadily march into healthy habitats of all types, overrun marginal slopes and spread to just about every corner of our world.

South Dakota has caught on to the threat of mullein and classifies it as a noxious weed and landowners are required to control it. Idaho is still behind the times. Mullein is not officially a noxious weed here but certainly makes the obnoxious weed list.

Mullein is in bloom right now and is an easily recognized plant with its yellow-flowered spikes. It is a biannual, meaning that the first year it forms a rosette of leaves and develops a large taproot. The second year, the leaves grow and a stem with one or more spikes bolts up to five feet tall. The leaves of the mullein are large and densely covered with soft fuzzy hairs earning it the nickname, “scout toilet paper”. These same hairs make it almost completely unpalatable to wildlife and livestock.

Once established, mullein is extremely difficult to eradicate, especially in a native setting. A single mullein plant can produce from 100,000 to 180,000 seeds that may persist in the soil for 100 years.

That is where you and I come in. Whenever we see a mullein plant, especially a single plant or small group, pull it up. Even large plants often pull out fairly easily or the taproot can be cut with a shovel. This is absolutely the best way to keep mullein from becoming established.

In several of my favorite haunts, I make it a practice to pull up every mullein I see. Once the seeds ripen, I very carefully cut the seed spike off with clippers and drop it in a bag. Over time, my efforts have dramatically reduced the number of mullein in those areas, maintaining them for wildlife.  I invite you to join my crusade to help keep mullein from spreading any further. Dig, pull and cut this weed out of existence!


Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho