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Paying Attention in Nature: Flannel Mullein

October 14, 2022 10:17 AM | Elise Lange (Administrator)

At our last Becoming an Outdoors-Woman weekend in September, I had the chance to spend some time with the Bridges to BOW group during a class led by Trica Oshant-Hawkins, AWF’s Conservation Programs Director. In this class, we walked out deeper into the woods, stopping at several spots to engage in activities like filtering water from a stream, building a shelter, and learning about the multitude of ways you can build a fire. 

Something that stuck with me, and stuck with many of the people there based solely on my discussions with them after, was how easy it is to ignore aspects of nature and wilderness — even when you find yourself surrounded by it.

It is easy to imagine not noticing every small weed or sparrow that appears in your own neighborhood. Easier still, is the state of obliviousness to nature that occurs when living in a city lacking “interesting” wildlife or plants — think of the living things you see daily: pigeons, bushes, aloe vera and agave, starlings. These are the living things that we Arizonans find ourselves constantly surrounded by.

All this being said, why then, does it still happen when in the woods? I find myself hiking for miles only to be done and realize I cannot remember the names of any plants I walked by. Someone could ask me, ‘What did you see?’ and I honestly would have no response other than vague recollections of ‘Oh, some birds, some trees, some flowers.’ 

Trica brought this up to the Bridges to BOW group, and practically everyone agreed! 

There are so many explanations for why this phenomenon happens even to the most avid outdoor enthusiasts. Perhaps it’s just a symptom of humanity moving away from nature and towards developed areas. Maybe we spend too much time looking at our screens instead of our surroundings. Worst of all, I think, is that we simply don’t care about nature anymore.

Luckily, I heartily disagree with that last point, though I’m sure some people out there believe it. Truthfully, I think that Trica said it best when she pointed out our tendency to call animals and plants by “it”. Instead, Trica suggested the group try calling animals and plants with more personal terminology. 

Look at that bird! It’s beautiful.

Instead:

Look at that bird! She’s beautiful.

It’s a simple solution, but once you start changing how you address wildlife and plants, it becomes so much easier to notice and appreciate them. Truly, I think that small change is the beginning of recognizing plants and animals by their names. Their presence feels so much more impactful when you know them with that familiarity.

One plant that everyone from that class should know now is the flannel mullein. This plant was everywhere in Prescott! However, in demonstrating my previous point, nobody in the group noticed them until Trica pointed them out.

Do you recognize this plant? 

Perhaps this one?

If you do, then you’ll know that these are the same type of plant! You have likely seen them at mid to higher elevations in disturbed areas. They’re called flannel mullein because their leaves are soft and flannel-like. Originally from the old world, they have naturalized to the U.S. 

They are a biennial, meaning they only live for two years. The first year they grow as a rosette low to the ground. In the second year, the plant puts up a long stalk covered with small yellow flowers. Finally, they dry out and die at the end of their second year.

Mullein is a great plant to recognize, as it has many uses, both medicinal and as a tool. The stalk can be used as a spindle for friction fires or can be dipped in sap or wax to be used as a torch. 

We hope that on your next outing, you’ll see some mullein and learn more names of the wonderful wildlife around you.


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