The first two plants in this series could be described as medium-sized. They don’t look like much from a distance. The Olympic Mullein is different. It’s big and striking. It’s architectural. I’ve seen mulleins more than 10 feet tall. Even so, it’s relatively skinny for its height, making it a perfect “statement” plant in a bed of shorter subjects, a visual exclamation point.
Most mulleins, including the Olympic one, are biennials. They spend their first year as a “rosette” of large fuzzy leaves radiating from a centre point at ground level. This rosette can take up a fair bit of space — up to 3 feet in diameter. The big leaves can overwhelm any small, delicate plants nearby, so keep that in mind when siting mulleins.
In the second spring, drama begins. A single bloom stalk emerges from the middle of the rosette and rises skyward. You can see it lengthen from one day to the next, shooting out lush leaves topped by a vaguely phallic structure consisting of the immature flower stalks. By the time this unfolds into a glorious mass of yellow, the plant attains its full height, anywhere from six to ten feet. Bees love the flowers. A plant in full bloom on a hot July day buzzes with their activity.
I must have grown my first Olympic mulleins here from seed, back in the early 1990s. Since then, I haven’t needed to buy more seed or new plants. At some point, I acquired a plant of white mullein (Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’). It’s smaller and daintier (if you can call any mullein dainty). It has a single spike of flowers, rather than the broom-like structure of the Olympic mullein. The flowers, of course, are white and the stamens are purple, unlike the Olympic mullein, whose flowers are entirely yellow. After a couple of years I began noticing smaller plants with single bloom spikes and yellow flowers with purple stamens. The two types must have gotten together and hybridized. Plants do stuff like that. Unlike their Olympic cousins, the white mullein and the yellow + purple hybrids are perennials.
Another noteworthy mullein I’ve seen in other gardens is Verbascum bombyciferum, silver mullein. It’s not quite as big as Olympic mullein, and its leaves are heavily felted with white fuzz, a distinctly attractive feature. I’ve never managed to find a spot for it here, but I mention it because it was a favourite of that estimable gardener and garden writer, the late Henry Mitchell. He claimed the Latin name meant “carrying a bomb,” something I’ve never felt the need to verify.
Mulleins are trouble-free plants, drought-tolerant, deer-resistant, utterly reliable, at least in my garden with its sandy soil and dry summers. Even the maple roots and shade don’t faze them, although they do best in the sunniest spots in the garden. They don’t need staking.
Like many other tough plants, mulleins are prolific seed producers. Before I figured out a management method, a lot of seeds were deposited in my garden. That seed bank, probably supplemented to some extent by the odd stalk that escapes deadheading, has kept me in mulleins for a quarter century. They seem to form new buds even as the first lot of flowers fades, so I’m often surprised to see fresh flowers on a plant I thought was finished blooming. I suspect this is a way to fool the gardener into delaying deadheading and giving the plant time to ripen seeds from the earliest blooms. Anyway, once they truly are finished blooming, all you have to do is decapitate them. Cut the main stem just below the cluster of bloom stalks. Snip — done. It’s probably best to dispose of the spent stalks somewhere other than the compost pile, unless you don’t mind mullein seedlings popping up from the compost. Young plants are easily transplanted while small enough to dig up with taproots intact. Move them in spring and revel in their gorgeousness the following summer.
The decapitated plants cheerfully put out a fresh crop of bloom stalks, smaller and shorter than the original ones, and eventually a new batch of flowers for late summer and autumn. I’ve had mulleins in bloom as late as November. Eventually, though, it’s all over. Like all biennials, Olympic mullein plants die at the end of the second year. Once the leaves are dead and the plants look ugly, I cut the stalks at the base, using a small saw, because they are quite thick and woody. But I know there are half a dozen young plants waiting to do their thing the following year, and mullein seeds lurking in the soil.