Verbascum thapsus L.



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© DETenaglia

Family - Scrophulariaceae

Habit - Taprooted biennial forb. Foliage appearing cansescent due to dense pubescence.

Stems - Strongly erect, to 2.3 m, circular in cross-section or slightly polygonal, unbranched or occasionally few-branched toward the tip, winged by decurrent leaf tissue, densely woolly with branched and stellate, nonglandular hairs.

Verbascum_thapsus_stem.jpg Stem and upper leaves.

© SRTurner

Leaves - Leaves of the basal rosettes 8-55 cm long, sessile or with a short, winged petiole, the blade oblanceolate to obovate, the margins unlobed and entire or shallowly scalloped to bluntly toothed; stem leaves progressively shorter toward the stem tip, entire to finely scalloped or toothed, sessile, oblong-oblanceolate to oblanceolate, the bases decurrent down the stems as a pair of wings, grading fairly abruptly into the inflorescence bracts; leaf blades canescent, the surfaces densely woolly with branched (having an axis) and stellate, nonglandular hairs.

Verbascum_thapsus_leaf.jpg Adaxial leaf surface.

© DETenaglia

Verbascum_thapsus_leaf2.jpg Abaxial leaf surface.

© DETenaglia

Verbascum_thapsus_rosette.jpg First season basal rosette.

© DETenaglia

Inflorescence - Dense, indeterminate spikelike racemes (occasionally appearing paniculate in branched plants), the flowers solitary or more commonly in small, irregular clusters at the nodes, the flower stalks absent or to 4 mm long, densely woolly. Flowers subtended by foliaceous to scalelike bracts, these equaling or longer than calyx, densely stellate-pubescent.

Verbascum_thapsus_inflorescence.jpg Inflorescence.

© SRTurner

Flowers - Calyces 5-12 mm long, the lobes lanceolate to triangular-lanceolate, densely woolly. Corollas 8-18 mm long, 5-lobed, yellow, the margins minutely stellate-hairy. Stamens 5, alternating with corolla lobes, unequal, the upper 3 with the filaments and anthers shorter, straight, the filaments densely bearded with yellow hairs; the lower 2 with the filaments and anthers longer, glabrous or sparsely hairy, the anthers orange, those of the lower pair fused laterally to the filaments for most of their length. Style green, mostly glabrous but with some hairs at base, 1 cm long. Stigma capitate. Ovary superior, stellate pubescent to tomentose, 2-locular. Placentation axile.

Verbascum_thapsus_flowers.jpg Corollas.

© SRTurner

Verbascum_thapsus_flowers2.jpg Corollas.

© SRTurner

Fruits - Capsules 7-10 mm long, broadly ovoid, densely stellate-hairy, many-seeded, with persistent style.

Verbascum_thapsus_infruc.jpg Mature infructescences.

© SRTurner

Flowering - May - September.

Habitat - Streambanks, pond margins, marshes, disturbed portions of glades and upland prairies, fields, pastures, farmyards, ditches, railroads, roadsides, open disturbed areas.

Origin - Native to Europe.

Lookalikes - None.

Other info. - This distinctive plant is common across Missouri as well as most of the continental U.S. It is easily recognized by its rosettes of big, fuzzy leaves, and it is a familiar plant to most people. Its distinctiveness and familiarity have led to a host of creative and sometimes bizarre common names, many of which incorporate "flannel" or "mullein" in reference to the fuzzy leaves. Another whimsical name in common use is "cowboy toilet paper." Due to the plant's dense covering of potentially irritating stellate hairs, the advisability of the use suggested by this name is questionable.

The Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio included a V. thapsus plant at the feet of John the Baptist in his 1604(AD) painting, Saint John the Baptist. This work, incidentally, is displayed in Kansas City at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art.

The plant has been used in traditional medicine to treat headaches, fevers, cramps, burns, and a host of other ailments (including cold feet). Preparations meant for internal use must be finely filtered to remove the irritating stellate hairs.

Photographs taken at the Kansas City Zoo, 7-17-99, in Brown Summit, NC., 6-17-02, and at the Springfield Nature Center, Springfield, MO., 7-5-03 (DETenaglia); also at Weldon Spring Conservation Area, St. Charles County, MO, 9-26-2008, Onondaga Cave State Park, Crawford County, MO, 9-5-2011, and along the Katy Trail near Dutzow, Warren County, MO, 7-10-2015 and 6-30-2019 (SRTurner).