With people hoarding toilet paper and none to be found on our grocery store shelves, I’ve seen several Facebook posts about natural alternatives — plants you can use instead. One of those is our common weed, woolly mullein (Verbascum thapsus). It’s a ubiquitous plant, introduced to and growing in every state and Canadian province, according to the USDA PLANTS database.
Woolly mullein is a biennial, meaning it blooms in its second year of growth. Right now in our garden the mullein looks like the photo above, made a few days ago. You’ll find a basal rosette of fuzzy gray-green leaves on plants that started growing last year, hunkered down for the winter, and are just starting to grow again this spring. It’s going to be a while before they’re big enough to use for TP, but when they are they’ll be a good choice since they’re really soft and fuzzy. The leaves are strong enough to withstand a little wiping force, too.
I’ve never heard of anyone deliberately growing woolly mullein. It’s a common weed that spreads by seed, usually close to the mother plant. Mullein seems to prefer disturbed sites, which is why you’ll often see it along roadsides and in overgrazed pastures and vacant lots.
Another plant with woolly foliage is lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina), which is a common garden plant that can also escape and become a weed. At first glance the young leaves of lamb’s ears look a bit like mullein but there are important differences.
Lamb’s ears leaves are both shorter and narrower than woolly mullein. They’re both very soft to the touch and fuzzy on both the top and underside of the leaf. But mullein has a very obvious rosette form and plants are single. Lamb’s ears is a perennial that spreads by creeping stems that root wherever they touch the ground so it can form dense patches. In the garden it can be an assertive thug if you’re not careful. Deer don’t seem to care for it, either.
If I were choosing emergency buttwipes I’d definitely go for the mullein since the leaves are a lot bigger.