mulleins

My Tough Plants #3: Olympic Mullein

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.

May 17, 2014

Mullein rosette from above

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.

 

 

May 31, 2014

Olympic mulleins, Verbascum olympicum

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.

White mullein, Verbascum chaixii "Album" with bee

White Mullein with Bee

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.

Olympic mullein, Verbascum olympicum, second bloom

Dependable mullein with second flush of bloom

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.

November 2012

Maple Leaf and Mullein

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.

 

June 29, 2013

Mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

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Bee-Watching

Bee-watching is a wonderful distraction from the stresses of life. I can definitely recommend it for a warm, sunny afternoon as spring turns to summer.

 

Bee among Mullein flowers.

Bee among Mullein flowers. Yes, it is there! About halfway up, to the right of the plant’s stem.

 

Bumblebees seem to love California poppies. Most of them are black with yellow heads and a nifty yellow stripe across the bum. There are also some fuzzy-looking yellow-brown ones, but I didn’t get any pictures of them. (Taking decent pictures of bees is hard).

 

June 19, 2016

 

Note the bum stripe!

Note the bum stripe!

 

June 19, 2016

 

Possibly a wasp in the pink California poppy.

Possibly a wasp in the pink California poppy.

 

Honeybees favour the lavender almost exclusively. (And being smaller and a subdued orange-brown colour, they don’t show up well).

 

June 19, 2016

The bee is in the centre of the picture, to the right of the red of geranium flowers in the background. Enlarge and you will see it.

 

Note: bee-watching is not relaxing when the watcher is trying to take pictures of the bees. For best results, leave the camera/phone in the house!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Garden in Early Summer, and Life in the Shoe

Technically, summer is just beginning, but after a warm, dry spring it feels more like late July than June. Happily, the seediness of mid-late summer has not yet set in.

The area near the pond looks deceptively lush. I’m delighted that the calla lily bloomed quite well this year.

Calla lily by the pond

Calla lily by the pond

The rosebuds I noted a few weeks ago have burst into bloom, with more to come.

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The rather feeble potted rose “Fragrant Cloud,” grown from a cutting (and thus on its own roots, not grafted) managed to produce three luscious blooms. Here are two of them.

Rose "Fragrant Cloud"

Rose “Fragrant Cloud”

 

More "Fragrant Cloud"

More “Fragrant Cloud”

The mulleins are getting into their rather lengthy season of bloom, lighting up the garden like yellow torches.

Mullein (Verbascum chaixii)

Mullein (Verbascum chaixii)

Big mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

Big mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

With almost no rain since April, and the hottest weeks of the summer soon to come, this may be as good as it gets…

The back garden in full bloom

The back garden in full bloom

Note all the campion (Lychnis coronaria), mostly white but some magenta. The ideal way to treat these plants is to remove each spent flower individually — an impossible task with this many plants. They seed extravagantly, which is why there are so many.

Remember the Shoe Bird? The shoe is now full of little Bewick’s wrens, with the parents busily bringing in bugs and removing waste. I wish I had a picture of this activity, but they come and go so fast they’re gone by the time I pick up the camera. It was easier during the incubation period.

Bewick's wren on nest in shoe

Bewick’s wren on nest in shoe

What with the wren family, a gang of sparrows in the garage birdhouse, and raccoons methodically flipping rocks over at night, the garden is full of life.

 

 

Buds and Anticipation

Anticipation is one of the great pleasures of gardening. You plant, water, feed, weed and hover. You watch the little plant grow under your care. One day — it has buds! Already a reward for your efforts. Watching them swell, and develop colour, and begin to open — I find this almost better than the period of full bloom. It’s like the excitement you feel before going on a vacation; experiences yet-to-be-experienced are perfect and unbroken, without disappointments and, of course, the inevitable aftermath (returning to home and work, or fading and deadheading).

So far this spring, quite a few plants have budded, bloomed and faded already in my garden. Some, such as snowdrops, crocuses and tulips, are now dormant. Lilacs, fragrant and beautiful just a few weeks ago, are now entering the ugly brown stage and becoming an item for the Unpleasant Things To Do list, because clipping off the faded blooms is a tedious job done from a ladder.

But there are buds, hundreds of them, maybe thousands, such as those on this extremely tough, dependable rose growing into a Norway maple. (You can see a bit of a browned-off lilac bloom on the left).

May 18, 2015

Clematis “Pink Fantasy” has lots of promising buds this year.

May 18, 2015

Nearby are delphiniums and snapdragons, both in bud, with pink snapdragons already blooming in the background.

May 18, 2015

I like lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantia) best just before they bloom. They start to look tired once a few of the small flowers fade, although they do go on blooming for weeks, and the bees love them. Right now they are exquisitely velvety.

May 18, 2015

Mulleins do a great job preparing to bloom. You just know something big is coming, like the long crescendo in Respihghi’s “The Pines of the Appian Way,” a great buildup to a magnificent flourish. They also bloom a long time and are popular with bees.

White mullein, Verbascum chaixii

White mullein, Verbascum chaixii

 

Great big mullein, Verbascum olympicum

Great big mullein, Verbascum olympicum

Rose campion, Lychnis coronaria, is indecently happy in this garden. Here is one of many plants, developing dozens of buds that will soon be magenta or white flowers, next to an already blooming Dutch iris. (Note the wire fences around the perennial beds, and the rather large dead patch in the lawn — both due to the presence of Nelly the Newf, the canine member of the household).

May 18, 2015

Finally, some actual blooms…

Helianthemum nummularium

Helianthemum nummularium

And now, back to bee-watching.

Small bumblebee in Ceanothus.

Small bumblebee in Ceanothus.

The Garden at Midsummer

Few words, lots of pictures…

June 1, 2014A pair of house sparrows moved into this birdhouse which had been unoccupied for years. Even though they’re the most common of birds, it’s nice to see them coming and going. I think they have since launched a gang of young birds.

 

June 1, 2014The ex-vegetable patch, now evolving into something else, looks deceptively lush, with an old kale plant rising above lavender and sage.

 

June 1, 2014More lushness and promise in the front garden at the beginning of June, with forget-me-nots hanging on, Allium christophii, a blue hardy geranium, and foliage of asters and crocosmia. Euphorbia “Humpty Dumpty” in the background.

 

June 12, 2014June 12, 2014

 

 

 

 

The murky pink of an unfolding delphinium is a contrast to the unsubtle orange of a lily. Both grow in pots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 20, 2014Mulleins have gone from phallic to torch-like, although this one looks like it has an attitude. Note the hose snaking along the path. It hasn’t really rained since May 8, so watering with sprinklers is necessary.

 

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June 22, 2014The ever-reliable climbing rose, whose name I don’t know, is in full bloom. There are a few buds left to open, but you can see the very first flowers browning off. I’m always amazed that this plant blooms so well, since it’s planted right next to one of the Norway maples (whose presence is partly justified because it supports the rose).

 

June 22, 2014

June 22, 2014

The tomato plants are starting to bloom, so maybe there will be a few tomatoes by September. Growing in pots, they are dwarfed specimens, but would do worse in the dry, rooty soil of the garden.

 

 

 

Thugs, Prima Donnas… and Mulleins

When I began making this garden in 1992, I didn’t have a lot to spend on the project, so I was happy to fill up the space with pass-along plants from other gardeners, waifs and strays of unknown provenance and tough, easy-to-grow self-seeders. Many of these are still with me, prospering despite the sandy, tree-root-infested soil and dry summers. I’ve written about them here already.

Like most gardeners, I’ve also wanted to grow more challenging plants — refined roses, delphiniums, oriental lilies and (the gardener’s supreme challenge), Himalayan blue poppies. For several years, I pored over the catalogues of a nursery located in the Fraser Valley, and every year brought home a selection of their offerings. I ordered seeds of carefully-researched perennials and successfully raised seedlings. Some of those acquisitions are still with me, and a few are doing well.

Geranium "Anne Folkard" and Clematis integrifolia

Geranium “Anne Folkard” and Clematis integrifolia

 

Dictamnus albus

Dictamnus albus

But. (There’s always a “but”).

My garden is now bursting full. If I want to try something new, something has to be removed. Quite a few of the purchased and grown-from-seed plants are long gone, remembered only from a sad collection of labels in my garden shed. Cosmos atrosanguineus, Gaura lindheimeri “Siskiyou Pink,” Lamium maculatum “White Nancy,” R.I.P. Farewell, Coreopsis verticillata “Moonbeam,” Trifolium repens “Dragon’s Blood” and Cimicifuga racemosa.

The good old tough plants are, of course, thriving. Hellebores, toadflax, rose campion, lamb’s ears, lady’s mantle, foxgloves, fireweed and a number of ferns. The fussy, “quality” plants, however, live in pots. No root competition and individual attention from the gardener in the form of fertilizer and water.

Potted Oriental Lily and Zeke the Cat

Potted Oriental Lily and Zeke the Cat

Pots aren’t foolproof, however. I bought this potted lily a week ago to replace two that gave up the ghost because I allowed self-seeded “hitchhiker” plants to take over their pots. Another threat is excessive winter wetness. A couple of my delphiniums perished from that, and it was literally death to my idea of growing blue poppies in pots. Better results may be possible if one ensured really good drainage and situated the pots in a spot out of the rain (and remembered to check for excessive dryness at times over the winter).

For the past three years, my blue poppies have had their own bed near a magnolia. Last year they bloomed; this year they decided to give it a miss, even though they look healthy. I am catering to them with mulches of compost and peat, extra fertilizer, regular watering and shade from afternoon sun. As in farming and hockey, maybe next year.

Tough plants need to be controlled and discouraged. Delicate beauties need to be cosseted and coaxed. Pots aren’t always a solution and there are no guarantees.

But mulleins look great most of the time. I have given over my former vegetable patch to herbs and mulleins — Verbascum olympicum and Verbascum chaixii. Even before they bloom, they look interesting.

Verbascum chaixii rosette from above

Verbascum chaixii rosette from above

Mulleins seem to know that anticipation is almost better than fulfillment. They take a long time to grow their bloom stalks and look great through the process.

Olympic mulleins, Verbascum olympicum

Olympic mulleins, Verbascum olympicum

In the end, I have to ignore the distinctions between tough plants, refined plants, purchased or self-seeded. Right now, the garden looks pretty good. Right now. That’s what counts.

May 31, 2014

 

 

The Garden in August

The word for this month is “dry.” Really dry. Only 9 millimeters (0.35 inches) of rain since June 27th. Hoses, sprinklers and watering cans are getting a lot of use, but despite that, the scene has a brownish tinge.

August 25, 2013

This is how I began this post a few days ago. But that evening we had rain, quite a heavy shower. Things got wet, the soil sopped up the moisture. A few more bouts of rain followed, for a total of 17 millimeters (0.67 inches) — not that much, but enough to water the entire garden without me having to lift a bucket or drag a hose. Bliss for the dry-summer gardener!

Tomatoes are getting an orange tinge, and visits by raccoons and deer have tapered off. Quite a few of the tough plants that cope well with drought and/or shade are putting on a late summer show, such as these mulleins, echinops and Verbena bonariensis in the ex-vegetable patch.

August 25, 2013

Regular visits to the pond by raccoons have rendered some areas a near-desert (typical gardener exaggeration here), but recent efforts to clean it up, and the rain recharge, have been encouraging. This spot looks fairly good after extensive “dead-leafing” of daylily “Kwanso.”

August 25, 2013

The front garden looks deceptively lush and colourful.

August 18, 2013

This combination of blue fescue, brunnera “Jack Frost” and a euphorbia whose name I don’t know is particularly fetching. (Does anyone recognize the euphorbia? It has red stems and tiny leaves and grows to about 18 inches).

August 10, 2013

I’ve had this acanthus for years, during which it has gradually bulked up, and this year it finally bloomed. Quite impressive (to me, anyway).

August 10, 2013

Bee-watching is still a big thing, but…

August 5, 2013

…the summer is ending and I’m looking forward to fall, my favourite season, especially what I call the “fall spring,” when some spring-bloomers such as rhododendrons and Clematis armandii, for example, perk up and bloom a little. Mushrooms pop up, mosses and ferns are refreshed, leaves start to turn colour, and the gardener perceives hints of winter gravity behind the morning mists.