Plants - Perennials

Garden-worthy mulleins

Patrick Lima
Photography by
John Scanlon

Tall, stately mulleins stand fresh and radiant in the flower bed

Like many Verbascum, Greek mullein is biennial-a rosette of leaves the first year, flowers the next, end of story. Luckily for lazy gardeners, the plant takes care of its own propagation, dropping seeds and sprouting new plants nearby. Small seedlings can be carefully lifted and shifted to a new location. If too many pop up, I remind myself-while pulling them up that this is probably a big old weed on its home turf. It's been 20 years now, and so far the Olympian hasn't managed to run or jump out of bounds.

Few plants have foliage as woolly white as the biennial Turkish mullein, V. bombyciferum, sometimes sold under the cultivar names ‘Arctic Summer' (also known as ‘Polarsommer') or ‘Silver Lining'. The down is so thick you can gather it up like cotton wool in your fingers. When summery yellow flowers appear on the snowy stalks, you have a plant of great interest and distinction. Not as tall as its Greek cousin, grow Turkish mullein near the front of a sunny bed where it can be seen from tip to toe. It grows to about 120 centimetres. As easy as every other mullein to raise from seed initially, Turkish mullein usually self-sows.

A departure from yellow-flowered biennial mulleins, the white perennial V. chaixii ‘Album' is probably the most refined of a sometimes rough lot. Coming true from seed, and flowering from the second year onward, it sends up a crowd of slender, branching stems thickly set with white blooms centred with fuzzy purple filaments tipped with yellow pollen. This green-leafed mullein blooms for weeks in midsummer and returns from underground each spring. Unless they get carried away, self-sown seedlings are a bonus and can be left in place or moved when small. Standing about 1.5 metres tall, this mid-border mullein associates well with lilies, phlox, bellflowers, yarrows, coneflowers and grasses. Where daylilies dominate, the white spires provide vertical contrast.

Hybrids and surprises
Mulleins are not shy about sharing pollen-not that they have any choice, with bees working the flowers incessantly. In our garden the various kinds occasionally interbreed, giving rise to interesting new plants. How else to explain the spontaneous appearance of a tall, branching yellow mullein bearing a striking resemblance to Greek mullein, with the purple "eyes" and perennial habit of V. chaixii ‘Album'? However it came to be, it decorates the back row of a wide border in company with false sunflowers (Heliopsis spp.), sneezeweed (Helenium spp.) and hollyhocks. Although our mystery mullein has survived for three years, I don't trust its perennial nature and have started new plants by trowelling away pieces of the crown—a few leaves with roots attached—from the outside of the clump.

English gardeners have appreciated mulleins for a long time and over the years have bred hybrids with larger flowers in different shades. In spring I make a habit of checking nurseries in case a new name appears. ‘Banana Custard' and ‘Wega' are large-flowered yellows, impressive as singles or massed; ‘Snow Maiden' is a white mullein that comes true from seed. The purple mullein, V. phoenicum, is one parent of some intriguing hybrids: ‘Cotswold Beauty', pale peachy bronze; ‘Cotswold Queen', apricot with purple stamens; ‘Pink Domino', dusty light rose. Reaching 130 centimetres, they are most effective in groups of three or more.

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