Odd mullein out
Smooth, dark green foliage is not the only trait that sets the purple mullein, Verbascum phoenicum, apart. At only a metre tall, it is short stuff in mullein company. Flowers in shades of rose and purple appear not on stout clubs but on thin, willowy stems. As perennial as a mullein gets, this one may live for three to four years, spawning a batch of seedlings in the process. Easily raised from seed-usually mixed hybrid colours-this is the mullein for gardeners who shy away from the big, hairy, yellow brutes or feel their Olympian bulk is too big for their gardens.
Starting from seed
Since mulleins are not standard offerings at nurseries, seeds may be the best start. For all their eventual bulk, mulleins have seeds that are mighty small, like a grind of pepper. Start with a bulb pot-wider and more shallow than an ordinary flowerpot-filled with a light soil mix. Scatter seeds thinly over the surface, press them in lightly and cover with the finest dusting of soil. Water from below by sitting the pot in a basin of water. In a warm, sunny place, seeds should sprout in a week to 10 days. As they grow, thin them so that each seedling has three to four centimetres of room to stretch. After a couple of true leaves have formed, gingerly lift and transplant seedlings into individual 10-centimetre pots. Keep them growing in the sun-window, greenhouse or cold-frame-until they look sturdy enough to fend for themselves outdoors, then transplant about 30 to 50 centimetres apart. In the summer sun, the first-year mullein rosettes expand quickly in preparation for next year's flowering. With luck, mulleins will take to your garden and come back on their own from seed, saving you the work. If you grow two or more kinds, be prepared for spontaneous cross-pollination and surprises.
The Garden Shed: V. bombyciforum ‘Arctic Summer', V. ‘Banana Custard', V. ‘Pink Domino'.
Humber Nurseries: V. bombyci-forum ‘Arctic Summer', V. phoenicum.
JDS Gardens: V. olympicum, V. phoenicum.
Park Seed: V. thapsus.
The Perennial Gardens: V. olympicum, V. chaixii ‘Album'.
Thompson and Morgan: V. thapsus, V. bombyciforum ‘Silver Lining', V. chaixii ‘Album', V. ‘Banana Custard', V. ‘Snow Maiden'.