One thing I can find in my backyard at all times of the year is mullein. I love the rosette of leaves and their soft texture. Join me this week in a study of the mullein.
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I had a friend ask me the difference between a common mullein and a lamb’s ear. I just happen to have both growing in my yard so it didn’t take me long to pop out and take a few images. The images above are both of the mullein plant and the second year winter seed stalk. The rosette shape of the plant with its blue gray soft and fuzzy leaves grows low to the ground in the first year. Later on it will have leaves that are more upright along the stalk.
The image directly above this is of the lamb’s ear in winter. It grows in more of a clump with no marked rosette. The leaves are also a soft gray-green color and are fuzzy, perhaps not quite as thick as the mullein. In winter you can really see how different the plants are.
If you are observing these two plants in the summer or autumn, you can really tell the difference by the flower stalks. The mullein grows super tall and has yellow flowers and the lamb’s ear has a short stalk and purple flowers.
Here is the lamb’s ear blooming in the spring. You can see it is a low growing purple flower.
This is the tall yellow flowering stalk of the common mullein.
Hopefully this helps you distinguish the two plants….a lot of similarities and some really big differences too!
On an absolutely beautiful autumn day, we hiked out to the river to enjoy the sunshine and fall colors. We were on the lookout for some fall seeds and we discovered a new flower!
I have no idea what this plant is but it was about four feet tall and was swaying in the breeze…waving us over to take a closer look. Aren’t these the prettiest little flowers?
Each branch ended with these delicate flowers and the stem of the plant was purplish red.
We also discovered a patch of evening primrose dispersed among the big boulders lining the river’s edge.
We also spied this massive mullein plant with its soft rosettes of leaves.
We were so distracted by the plants and flowers that we didn’t collect any seeds for our nature journal entry. I am thinking that it will take a change in the weather before I am inspired to collect seeds and sit down long enough to make a page for our fall seeds. Can you blame me?
Now that the season has changed and we have cleaned up the yard for the coming season, I thought I would share a few of the ways we keep our yard as a wildlife habitat in winter. It is just a matter of knowing which plants to prune back and which ones can be left as they are.
We have learned by trial and error mostly.
The Heavenly bamboo along the front of our house is not only colorful this time of year with the leaves turning reddish and the berries ripening to a brilliant orange-red but it is a source of shelter for birds and insects. I have seen the Ruby-crowned kinglet gathering spiderwebs from these bushes. (Audubon website says of the kinglet’s nest, “Moss, grass, lichen, bark strips, twigs, rootlets, needles, and spider webs comprise its outer walls, and feathers, plant down, and hair form a soft lining.”)
We leaves some of the grasses and weeds for the birds and other animals to use as food and shelter.
They don’t look very appetizing but the birds think these are tasty little treats….blackberries left on the vine just behind our bird feeding station. The finches, sparrows, titmouse, and towhees all shelter on and under these vines. I also saw fox scat just by these vines last week so I think they might be gleaning a few berries as well (as evidenced in the scat).
The coneflowers are another favorite in the winter flower garden. I cut them way back but leave some of the seed heads for the birds to glean from.
We also have learned that some of the weeds in our yard are best left to over-winter. These mullein plants will shoot up a stalk next spring and then flower all summer. The hummingbirds and finches will use them as a steady part of their diet. We leave those in the garden.
I harvested about thirty pounds of walnuts this year for our enjoyment. I will spend many a winter evening hour cracking nuts for our family and to share with friends. Some of those friends will have feathers and fur. I leave quite a few of the nuts for the squirrels and Scrub jays to use for their winter meals. When I note that all the nuts are up off the ground, I will regularly set some out of my store cupboard in various parts of the yard. They always disappear.
Lavender along the front wall is once place I trim but not all the way back. It looks sort of wild but it does provide shelter all winter long for birds and nectar for the hummingbirds and bees. Yes, we have bees and hummingbirds in the winter who frequent this section of the garden. It amazes me every time I see the birds hovering over those small little flowers but they must be gathering some food or they wouldn’t come back. I also love leaving this section of lavender because when the sun hits those plants it produces a sweet smell that reminds me that summer will come again.
It can’t all be about the animals, birds, and insects.
I have another post that I will share in the next few weeks showing some more sheltering spots in our yard that may inspire you to try your hand at a winter garden for wildlife.
So what did we do to study weeds a little more in depth this year?
We have been collecting weeds on just about every walk. They have made into bouquets, looked at under the microscope, and drawn in our nature journals.
We looked for weeds on our last snowshoe hike and made quite a few observations while adventuring in the snow.
We have been observing our “laboratory” of mullein in the garden as it has changed over the past six months. It isn’t very pretty at this point but we are going to leave it until the spring greening. There are still parts of the plant that are greenish so we figure some creature in the yard might find a use for it.
Mr. B did the additional mullein research suggested in the More Nature Study Book 2 challenge and then he completed a notebook page.
Weeds and seeds of all shapes and sizes.
I decided to sketch and record my weed observations in my nature journal. I am trying to get better at identifying winter weeds
My mullein entry in progress
There is just so much to learn about winter weeds….it is like a whole new world to explore once you get started and train your eyes to see beyond the brownness of them. I spent two afternoons just looking closely, sketching, and researching in my field guide.
My journal included some details of the weed seeds.
“The farmer and the gardener owe quite a debt of thanks to the birds that eat weed seeds. Of course there are still bountiful crops of weeds each year; but there would be even more weeds if it were not for the army of such seed-eating birds as sparrows, bobwhites, and doves.” Handbook of Nature Study, page 45
I was thinking about this link between weeds, seeds, and birds this week after reading this in the Handbook of Nature Study. The design in the food web is such an awesome thing that we could very well overlook the fingerprint of the Creator if we don’t take the time to learn more about it.
There is always something new to think about and learn from our nature study…even if we have been at it for many years.
More Nature Study Book #3 Winter Weeds – Mullein Study
Read in the Handbook of Nature Study pages 537-539 (Lesson 146). Share a few facts and the images with your children so they can be on the lookout for mullein in your area. The distinctive rosette growth, the velvety leaves, and the flower stalk make this plant an easy one to spot, even in winter. (Ebook users have images included in the book and others can use the videos and the links in the Follow-Up section to view mullein.)
Make sure to note that mullein is a biennial (takes two years to mature and produce seeds).
Optional: Watch this short YouTube video that gives you an idea of what a winter mullein looks like: Common Mullein. I also made my own mullein video from my garden: Mullein in Autumn.
Outdoor Hour Time:
Common mullein is found throughout the United States and Canada. During your outdoor time this week, try to find some common mullein to observe in its winter state. First year mullein will be look like green, soft, rosettes. Second year mullein will be the brown plant with the flower stalk. Observe how the leaves grow out between the two of the lower circle, that the upper leaves are smaller than those below, and that the upper leaves do not lie flat.
Observe the mullein plant, looking at ways it survives the winter cold, rain, and snow. Make note of the plant’s location and plan to revisit it over the next year in each season.
Alternate winter weed activity: Find and observe any winter weed in your neighborhood. Even if you have snow, see if you can find a part of a plant sticking up out of the snow and make some observations. You may want to click over and read my Winter Weeds challenge for additional ideas for your family.
Complete a follow-up nature journal entry or notebook page for your mullein observations. Ebook users choose from the Common Mullein or Winter Weed notebook pages.
Advanced follow-up: Research the mullein plant online and find how it is used its traditional, medicinal, and health uses. Try this LINK or this LINK (this one is excellent!). Ebook users: Complete a notebook page.
Advanced follow-up: Research annual, perennial, and biennial plants on Wikipedia. Ebook users: Complete the notebook page with a summary of the information and give examples of each kind of plant.
Many areas do not have milkweed to observe right now and I have had requests for alternate flowers to study. So here are some ideas for an alternative to your More Nature Study #1 Milkweed Study.
I mentioned in the challenge that you can find several alternate flowers in the Handbook of Nature Study. Anna Botsford Comstock gives us some ideas and I suggested “check for other fall blossoming wildflowers to observe like: Jewel Weed (Lesson 134), Late blooming Goldenrod (Lesson 132), or Asters (Lesson 133). ”
I have been doing additional research and you can also look for mullein (Lesson 146), dandelions (Lesson 144), sunflowers (Lesson 159), and several flowers not found in the Handbook of Nature Study– gentians, yarrow, or chrysanthemum. Hope that helps your family to complete the #1Milkweed Study (alternate study-any fall blooming flower).
Our world is slowly turning green and it feels nice to walk along and see the plants starting to awake for spring. We had our eyes open for winter weeds and we found some new things and some familiar things to share.
The side of our walking trail is covered in this plant with the nicely shaped leaves. I am going to watch it as the season progresses to see exactly what it is.
The California poppies are starting to grow and I can hardly wait to see their happy orange little faces in a month or so. Isn’t it interesting how it can grow right there right on the rock? Not much soil here but there are plenty of poppies sprouting up for us to enjoy.
Here is what our mullein looks like right now….all brown and the tops are covered in lots of seeds.
The Handbook of Nature Study says, “Later the capsule divides partially in quarters, opening wide enough to shake out the tiny seeds with every wandering blast. The seed, when seen through a lens is very pretty; it looks like a section of a corncob, pitted and ribbed.” (page 538)
This is the most interesting of the dried weeds that we observed. I like the way the bottom of the stalk looks like it is the skirt of the plant.
I can’t remember what this looks like in the spring or the summer….Does it have flowers? What do they look like? Now is the best part of the nature study experience. We get to watch this spot as the seasons progress and then see if we can identify it with our field guide. There is always something to learn and I am glad our Creator made us to be curious and he filled the world with interesting things to occupy our minds productively. (If you are a Bible reader: Ecclesiastes 3:10-14.)
Here is what it looks like close-up.
The top looks like this with its thin branching arms.
Our Queen Anne’s Lace looks pretty much like it did in the autumn.We had planned to pull up a specimen to observe the roots but we have snow today! We will have to wait now until we can get outside to finish our study.
I couldn’t decide on what I wanted for a journal entry this week so started a bulleted list of weeds we observed. I will add a few more as the month goes on and we see some more. I had room so I made a list of random other subjects we have come across this past week…sometimes it is just nice to have a little reminder to look back on in the years to come.
Mullein in our garden is about the only thing that is totally native and grows without any help or water from me. In the past, I dug it up and got rid of it but now I am converted. I leave it alone. It is rather pretty when it blossoms and the lesson in the Handbook of Nature Study has given me a new appreciation for this plant. (The lesson starts on page 537 and the study is Lesson 146.)
We actually studied mullein a little bit a few years ago and you can read about it here: Mullein.
After watching it grow in the garden, we realize now that it grows one year and blooms the next. This means that next year we will have loads of flowers from the many plants I have left in the garden this season. I am anxious to see how they survive the winter.
One thing that intrigued us from the lesson in the Handbook of Nature Study is the information on the “felt” of the leaves and stem. Anna Botsford Comstock suggests looking at it under a microscope. So….we did that and it was beautiful and enlightening. We could clearly see that the felt is actually a mat of sharp little spikes. The Handbook says that this felt also helps keep the water in the leaves from evaporating.
I have begun to open my eyes to native plants and the concept of weed vs. wildflower. There is always something new to learn about and to appreciate if we are open to the beauty right under our very own noses.
Harvesting oregano and making some bundles to dry was first on the list. We also picked another quart of strawberries, a few peas, a couple of stray carrots, and the last of the spinach.
We planted zinnias, cosmos, Shasta daisies, Ireland Bells, more cilantro, moonflowers, and lots of seedlings. We were able to get all our seedlings into the ground: pumpkin, acorn squash, zucchini, tomatoes, a variety of peppers, dill, and a variety of sunflowers. It makes me tired just thinking about all that we planted. Now the weather needs to stay warm and I need to keep my eyes on all my babies. My husband and boys were such a great help this week in the garden.
Weeding and pruning the butterfly garden was next on the list.
Here is another photo. If you click over to Flickr for either of these photos, I have made notes telling you what we have planted there.
One last angle of the butterfly garden.
Checking the garden beds and seeing what is growing is always a fun task this time of year. We have a few big mulleins growing along the fence.
Our baby Western scrub jay is flying now and he regularly sits outside our window waiting for his mother.
Moving from our garden now to our other adventures.
Several long hikes this past week…one hike where we saw the snake and some that were not so exciting. Here is the predominant wildflower on our hiking trail right now, Purple Chinese Houses.
We also went on a long bike ride and the boys had a blast.
My oldest son and I shared some photo moments at the lake when we stopped for a break.
Sand angels and Canadian geese….sounds good to me, except for the sand in the shoes.
I had to stop my bike and take a photo of this phlox alongside the trail. It was just too pretty to pass by.
So I think that catches me up for the last week or so in our world. I love this time of year. We have two Outdoor Hour Challenges to finish up but they will be posted soon. I have emailed out all the orders for ebooks that I have received so if you ordered and did not receive your files, please email me and let me know. I am really looking forward to starting the summer series of challenges with our family.