Apart from shrubs and trees, mulleins are among the largest flowering plants you're likely to see. It's difficult to overlook them; harder yet to be neutral about them. Meeting mulleins face to flower in our garden, people respond with either surprised enthusiasm ("Magnificent, but what exactly are they?") or quizzical hesitation ("Those aren't weeds, by any chance?"). The difference may depend on whether you think "imposing" is a compliment or a criticism when applied to plants. It may also depend on the time of day. Seen at dawn or in morning light, mulleins stand fresh and radiant, their leaves perky, flowers fully open. By mid-afternoon on a hot July day, they can look a bit bedraggled, flowers closed or fallen, foliage like flannel in need of a pressing. Still, few plants compare for bold form, soaring height and long flowering time.
Mullein is the common name for Verbascum, a genus of 360 species native to Europe, North Africa and central Asia. Originally Barbascum, an old Latin word for "bearded," the genus name refers to the beard of fine hairs covering the leaves, stems and flower stamens. Fuzziness extends to the rest of the plant as well. Mullein was at one time spelled molleyne or mollen, and before that wulleyn or woolen, describing the downy or furry texture of mullein leaves.
Although no mulleins are native to Canada, one species, V. thapsus, common mullein or flannel plant, has made itself at home throughout the land. A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-Central North America, by Roger Tory Peterson, gives its habitat rather pathetically as "roadsides, vacant lots, poor fields, waste places." Common mullein sends up a single stalk showing several widely spaced flowers at a time. But just what beauty this exclamation mark of a plant can bring to vacant lots I learned one summer, when a recently bulldozed building site changed naturally into a wildflower garden as yellow mulleins, blue viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare) and white field daisies sprang up in the rocky rubble. There was something nautical about the straight mullein masts swaying over a blue sea of bugloss and daisy whitecaps.
Mulleins are upright plants, often soaring to two metres or more. Although there are several white ones, and an oddball purple, most flower clear yellow. Leaves are long, wide and smooth-edged, ending in a sharp point; a broad rosette at ground level gives way to foliage up the length of strong stalks. Countless tiny hairs give the leaves of many species a grey shading, from silvery white to olive green. Leaf fuzz (not a botanical term) traps airborne moisture and slows evaporation, while silver deflects the sun's hottest rays-like wearing light colours in summer. Wild mulleins grow in sunny places where summer rainfall is sparse and drainage is fast. For gardeners, this is a clue. Put them in full sun in average soil where no water stands. If you are looking for candidates for xeriscaping-gardening without watering-let me make some introductions.
Greek and Turkish mulleins
The first mullein I ever met was in an English country garden years ago, where masses of Greek mullein, V. olympicum, radiant on an overcast day, had been left to self-sow through a sunny space surfaced in gravel. This two-metre-tall Greek native has lived in our garden ever since, against a split-rail fence at the back of a sunny, sandy border. Compared with the common roadside mullein, with its single stalk and sparse bloom, Greek mullein branches out into giant candelabras lit with hundreds of yellow flowers. Starting in late June with the last of the irises, the illumination continues through the better part of July. The association with light goes back a long time: candlewick plant, hag's tapers and torches are old names, and the German name konigskerze means "king's candle." At one time, mullein stalks were dipped in tallow and set ablaze for illumination—giving garden lighting a whole new slant.