Over the past few years, a wildflower meadow at a nearby nature preserve has been overrun by a nasty invasive alien weed called Mugwort. Last year, the meadow was stripped of the offender by mechanical and chemical means, with the hope that native plants would be given a chance to return.
For one species, at least, the project has been an almost spectacular success. One of my favorite plants, the Moth Mullein, is back in force. In recent years only a few of these plants could be seen blooming throughout the 107-acre preserve. When I visited yesterday, literally dozens of mulleins were in full bloom throughout the meadow, including the usual solitary plants but also clumps of several stalks.
Something about the removal of the mugworts and the chemical treatment with a short-lived herbicide must have provided just the right conditions for the germination of buried Moth Mullein seeds, and nature took its course, producing a delicate sprinkling of yellow across the field of grasses. There is even one of the white-flowering variety, a rarity, at least in this part of the county (a little further south, they seem to be the dominant form.)
Of course there is usually a flip side to every story. Truth be told, the Moth Mullein (Verbascum blattaria) is itself an alien, native to Africa, Asia and parts of Europe. But it’s ever so much more attractive, and less likely to take over completely, than the dreaded Mugwort that was removed to allow its resurgence.
I am looking forward to the reappearance of Moth Mullein’s big cousin, the Common (or Great) Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), a truly impressive, very furry plant with a 5- to 10-foot flower stalk, of which I have seen few at the preserve in recent years. Of course, it too is an alien, which can aggressively take over a meadow—so maybe we should be careful what we ask for.
But let’s not forget the big picture that I’m always pushing here: any plant that you see, whether big or small, hairy or smooth, colorful or drab, native or alien, is an engineering and biochemical marvel. Just the story of the reproductive cycle or the development of a plant from a tiny seed could fill several books, containing many mystery plots that still baffle the science guys.
Flowering plant evolution has been mind-boggling to those guys for a century or more. Once in a while we see an article relating some promising theory, but it is usually filled with ifs, buts, maybes, as well as evolutionary assumptions, rather than solid data—and amounts to nothing. I’ll stick my scrawny little neck out and say, with God-given confidence, “They didn’t evolve!”
Soli Deo Gloria