MysteryPlant

John Nelson

This plant is conspicuous and showy, and although a weed, it is attractive, in a sort of wild way. The soft, fuzzy leaves are remarkable, and one modern common name for it is “flannel plant.”

“‘Small herbs have grace, great weeds do grow apace’:

And since, methinks, I would not grow so fast,

Because sweet flowers are slow and weeds make haste.”

Richard III; II, 4.

William Shakespeare was a genius — and obviously a botanist. His writing is full of references to different kinds of plants, and thus his plays and sonnets are treats for people like me. The Bard surely had access to a variety of illustrated manuals, or “herbals,” which were usually sizable treatises on local vegetation written so that people would be able to recognize a certain plant, learn its common name (there weren’t any scientific names at the end of the 16th century) and, probably more importantly, read how these plants could be useful, especially medicinally. One of the most important of these herbals was a massive work by John Gerarde, published in 1597, a work that borrowed heavily from previous botany books, and as well from Greek and Roman sources.

Remember that Europeans didn’t have big-box drug stores on every corner back then; if people had access to a “chemist,” they could acquire various kinds of medicines (or poisons; read “Romeo and Juliet” again), often of dubious quality and probably dangerously prescribed. Knowing the medicinal properties of local plants would allow a sort of effective self-medication, as needed. Of course, the medicinal benefits ascribed to a given plant were frequently off-base, derived from various old wives’ tales, and/or centered on the “Doctrine of Signatures,” which maintained that we could assess the usefulness of a plant by its various qualities or appearances it might exhibit. As you might expect, this rarely works.

Here is a weed that really makes haste once it gets going. This is a commonly seen plant, now found just about all over North America, but is not a native. It is a biennial, in that it will sprout and produce a basal tuft of robust leaves, and then do nothing until the next season, when it will send up, amazingly, a thick stalk (or stalks) loaded with flowers. Those basal leaves, and indeed the entire plant, are covered with many thousands of soft, white hairs. The flowers produced that second season are very cheerful, a warm buttery yellow. Shakespeare surely would have seen this plant in England, but it is not mentioned in any of his works.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this plant is the ease at which it spreads, especially into the New World. It was grown intentionally by early colonists, thus producing plenty of seeds to get itself spread around, and there were surely many accidental introductions from Europe.

Native Americans never would have seen this plant prior to European colonization, and one purported name they used for it was “White-man’s plant,” since it seemed to go everywhere the colonists did. This plant is conspicuous and showy, and although a weed, it is attractive, in a sort of wild way. The soft, fuzzy leaves are remarkable, and one modern common name for it is “flannel plant.”

For those of you needing to brush up on your Shakespeare, a delightful treatment of the Bard’s plants is found in Margaret Willes’ “A Shakespearean Botanical,” published in 2015 by the Bodleian Press, Oxford.

Answer: “Common mullein,” Verbascum thapsus.

John Nelson is the retired curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. As a public service, the herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit herbarium.org, call (803) 777-8196 or email nelson@sc.edu.

Load comments