I was thinking for a homeschool blog, I don't write very specifically on how we "do" school ;) I suppose it's partly because it's so entwined with our regular day that it's a little hard to separate and describe, and partly because it's always evolving and morphing to suit our whims. But, I thought I'd try to devote a few posts explaining how we do things around here.
Since spring hit and with all our recent trips to the river, we've been concentrating on our Nature Journals. Little Brother likes this plant because of its soft, furry leaves so we decided to learn more about it. Boy, were we in for a surprise! This little plant supplied lots of lessons and connections to previous discussions that I never would've imagined. I have to admit, I'm somewhat obsessed with this flannel-like weed now. From this solitary plant, we were able to discuss science, art, Latin and a bit of history, not to mention exercise our brains with observation skills. I enjoy researching on the internet first so I can introduce a few facts to the kids, then as questions come up, we do further research together. Besides the internet, we used several wildflower references guides and the Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Comstock. Following is a condensed version of of our most recent Nature Journal study.
Mullein is what you'll usually hear this plant called, but it has many different names including Beggar's Blanket, Hag's Taper and Quaker's Rouge. It's a biennial. A large velvety rosette of leaves define its first year and in its second year will grow a tall stalk tipped with yellow flowers. Mullein has a long history and a cornucopia of medicinal uses associated with it. It's very hardy and prefers a sunny location in dry, sandy soil.
(I've written the facts we learned first, then highlights of our discussion are following in red.)
Thoreau refers to mullein in Walden, chapter 5 "Solitude", with this passage...
"I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls. Let me suggest a few comparisons, that some one may convey an idea of my situation. I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself...I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a bumblebee."
I loved being able to bring up Thoreau again. We had talked about him briefly when we went on a tangent studying the Civil War. In 1846, he refused to pay taxes he knew would go to support slavery and the Mexican-American War (he was against both) and was put in jail. He didn't believe one should have to obey a law that wasn't morally just and wrote an essay outlining his thoughts titled "Civil Disobedience". We had discussed him again when we studied Gandhi and nonviolence. Even though the mention of mullein is a small literary reference, it's a nice tie-in to Thoreau and a chance to talk about Walden which we previously hadn't focused on very much.
In Homer's epic poem "The Odyssey", mullein is believed to be the magical plant given to Odysseus to protect him from the enchantress Circe.
"Perfect!" I thought when I read this. A lucky coincidence, since we had read The Children's Homer earlier this year, it gave us an opportunity to go back and re-read the chapter about Circe. There are numerous references on the internet to mullein being the protective plant given to Odysseus, but looking at translations, the plant is described as having a white flower and black roots (not the description of mullein) and called "Moly". More research shows the herb may have been garlic or even rue. So, while our mullein plant may not have been the actual plant referred to in the poem, it was still nice to have the reference to The Odyssey.
The scientific name of this plant is Verbascum thapsus.
The genus name, Verbascum, is thought to be a corruption of the Latin word "barbascum", meaning "beard". (Appropriate because of its furry leaves.) The common name mullein (pronounced MULL-in) comes from the Latin root "moll-" meaning "soft". We looked at other words derived from these roots - barber, barbed, mollify, emollient, mollusk...
Mullein plants were used by Native Americans to stun fish to make them easy to gather.
Mullein contains the phytochemical saponin. Saponins are also foaming agents and have been added to a variety of products including toothpaste, shampoo, beer and soft drinks. (We put some torn leaves and water in a jar and shook it and could see some foam created). A toxic saponin is called a sapotoxin. The sapotoxin in mullein is rotenone and is a piscicide (fish poison). Apparently you can toss the crushed seeds into a fish pond and the fish will be temporarily paralyzed and float to the top, making them easy to gather. As soon as fresh water flows through their gills though, they will recover, so you have to work quickly. We're planning an experiment with this later in the summer when the plants have flowered and we can gather some seeds.
Mullein has been used for centuries as an herbal remedy.
Flowers and leaves from mullein have a large amount of mucilage. Mucilage helps the plant store water and allows it to grow successfully in dry, sandy soil. As an herbal remedy, the saponin in mullein acts as an expectorant and the mucilage soothes inflamed mucous membranes so the combination is effective for any respiratory problems including coughs and colds. A steam inhalation using torn up mullein leaves and boiling water help relieve a stuffy nose. A tea can also be made, but it must be strained first to get rid of the little hairs as they can be irritating.
I'll try and write more about the homeschool part of our life, but I hope this gives you a little insight for now!