Cowboy’s Toilet Paper

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On my drive to and from work recently, I have been seeing tall spikes of yellow flowers growing in clusters along the roadside. They start flowering at the bottom of this spike and then as time goes on, the higher flowers start to open. What I have been seeing is cowboy’s toilet paper (Verbascum thapsus), which is also known as common mullein1.

Cowboy’s toilet paper flower, Stan Shebs

Cowboy’s toilet paper is an invasive wildflower that is native to Eurasia and Africa. It is a biennial, meaning that it lives for two years. During the first year, it grows close to the ground as a basal rosette of leaves. It is in the second year that we see these tall spikes of yellow flowers reaching heights of up to seven feet. After the plant finishes flowering, its seeds mature and the mother plant dies.

Green leaves in a slightly shaded area.

Basal rosette, Charles de Mille Isles

Cowboy’s toilet paper tends to be found in neglected sites such as the roadways that I see it growing along so often. It prefers sandy soils and a neutral to slightly alkaline pH. While some pollinators do use cowboy’s toilet paper and it can be attractive in select settings, it is generally considered a weed as it reseeds prolifically. In areas where flowers are allowed to mature, this plant can release 100,000 to 180,000 seeds and often crowds out more desirable native plants2.

The unique name for this plant comes from its occasional use as a toilet paper replacement. Leaves are covered in woolly hairs that make the leaf quite soft. If used as toilet paper, it is important to get fresh leaves rather than old, dry leaves as these will crumble during use. In addition to its use during emergencies and lockdown-induced toilet paper shortages, this plant has traditionally been used medicinally for a number of illnesses.

Green leaves of Cowboy's toilet paper with light white flocking on them.

Cowboy’s toilet paper leaves, K. Andre

If you need any help identifying plants that you find out in the environment, bring a complete sample or several high-quality pictures to the Cooperative Extension Center and we will do our best to help you. If you bring high-quality pictures, make sure that they aren’t blurry and that all parts of the plant are visible.

  1. North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox
  2.  Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health