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By John Nelson
We have two dogs at home, both rescues. Can I brag on them for a moment?
Rosie is the older of the two; she’s an orange-and-white beagle with a song-like, baying voice, and is adept at chasing down squirrels in the yard. Hannah is a shaggy, somewhat Pleistocene creature, a sort of half-collie, half-shepherd mix, but her hunting skills, as of yet, don’t include harvesting squirrels. What she is good at, though, is stalking and capturing those big ol’ yard roaches. Yes, that’s right: She seems to be a roach-hound.
Now getting rid of roaches is a challenge in many places, including here in central South Carolina, and there are many ways to do it. Various techniques have been used with mixed results. If you look into this matter, you will find several plant species have been employed this way. This week’s mystery plant is one of them.
It is an herb, native to western Asia and Europe, and now widespread as a weed in many parts of the world, including most of North America. It can be seen in the late spring and early summer, dotting our roadsides and vacant lots, forming scattered patches sometimes. There will be a tuft of basal leaves, and then a nearly leafless stem arising two or more feet into the air, usually straight and unbranched. Damaged stems commonly branch, thus producing multiple flowering stems. These stems bear a succession of flowers, each with a long stalk, and one at a time, up to the top. The upper parts of the plant are softly hairy. In bloom, the plants are charming; to me they look like tall, slender candles.
The flowers are attractive, I think. There will be five petals, which are commonly buttery yellow, or sometimes much paler, or even white. Inside the flower will be some central purplish streaks, and the stalks of the stamens (the filaments, of course) will be softly downy with purple hairs. After blooming, the fruit develops, one from each flower, into a globose seedpod, which eventually dries out and turns hard, eventually cracking open and letting the tiny, angular seeds fall out. (The seeds look sort of like giant grinds from a pepper mill.)
Now, the leaves and flowers have apparently been used in the past as a means of discouraging roaches. In fact, the scientific name of this plant suggests “roach” in Latin. Linnaeus gave us this name, back in 1753, and of course, his names weren’t always accurate (That’s OK as far as the name goes, in botanical “legalese”). There is also some indication that this plant was used as a way of deterring moths, rather than roaches, and sure enough, the common English name for this plant has “moth” in it. It’s all a bit confusing, as far as the common names go, but the scientific name is stable and doesn’t change.
Of course Hannah doesn’t care about any of that too much. She’d go after a moth just as soon as she would a roach, I think.
[Answer: “Moth mullein,” Verbascum blattaria]
John Nelson is curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina in the Department of Biological Sciences in Columbia, S.C. As a public service, the herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, go to www.herbarium.org or call (803) 777-8196 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.