During an afternoon stroll I came across this guy:
It's hard to appreciate from the photos, but the leaves are super soft. More like decorative felt than normal leaf type material. It reminded me of lamb's ear, but I didn't recall seeing lamb's ear growing so tall.
That's because it's not lamb's ear. A quick Google Images Search set me straight: it's wild mullein. Another mystery solved: first year mullein grows as a rosette on the ground, whereas second year mullein grows in to a tall plant. That explains the two varieties I spotted growing.
While mullein is categorized as a weed, it actually has quite a few uses, including: as a medicinal tea, for primitive fishing and for primitive fire starting. And the most important use: as emergency backwoods toilet paper.
I'm coming to appreciate that weed is just another word for "grows really, really easily." Which I usually like in a plant.
Next time I see some mullein I'll have to try to harvest some of the leaves for tea. It's got to taste better than the "tea" I picked up in Japan.