Olympic mullein

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)


The Garden Goes On… And On

Gardens are collections of plants. No matter what the gardener does, plants grow, bloom, go to seed, and/or die, depending on the type of plant and whether it is getting the conditions it prefers. The gardener is a mere adjunct, trying with varying degrees of success to impose her idea of what the garden should be on a population of diverse plants. That’s the essence of gardening. It’s a constant struggle an intersection of plants, their needs, climate and weather, and the gardener’s desires and exertions.

Olympic Mullein -- gardener, look out!

Olympic Mullein — gardener, look out! Aaargh — too late!

Shortly after I retired at the end of March, I realized that as far as the garden was concerned, I was late to the party. Spring was early and warm, and growth was well under way before I had a chance to take a good look around. Too late for most pruning operations and moving plants around — two critical activities in this garden. Some plants — mainly shrubs — need frequent pruning, trimming and sucker removal. Others threaten to fade away unless moved to better spots, i.e., not overhung by trees or shrubs, in soil that isn’t full of maple roots.

I’ve spent the summer deadheading, watering, poking around and making plans for a grand game of musical chairs to be executed (what a word that is!) this fall and next spring. And a list of Things to Prune next winter. I’m keen to get going, but August isn’t the time for such exertions.

In the meantime, plants are going through their annual cycles, and so is the garden, which has entered what I think of as the brown season — late summer in a summer-dry climate. I’m getting tired of dragging the hose and hoisting the watering can. I know this happens every year. I know it will rain some day (and rain and rain some more). Hardy cyclamen will bloom. Mushrooms will sprout. Moss will green up. A few spring-blooming shrubs will send out a few flowers. The air will smell of coming autumn. But right now that seems far away.

Cyclamen, variegated hosta and hellebore

Cyclamen, variegated hosta and hellebore — in September, after rain.


The Garden in June: Goodbye Zoey

June 19, 2013

The two main bloom spectacles in June are from roses and delphiniums. This rose is a type whose name is unknown to me but it’s obviously a tough one, since it grows between two Norway maples, slings itself into their branches and blooms with abandon. The flowers are very full, white with a pinkish tint, and fragrant.

Another rose that blooms hard in June is Rosa glauca (formerly Rosa rubrifolia), the red-leaf rose. The leaves aren’t really red, but a sort of blue-green with reddish overtones, quite unusual. The flowers are tiny and not much to look at individually, but a pleasing sight in quantity.

June 9, 2013

Delphiniums are in full bloom now, but I like them best when they are mostly still in bud, with just a few flowers open — great anticipation!

June 19, 2013

Mulleins have this effect too — their growth from rosettes of great big fuzzy leaves up to the point they burst into bloom is a prolonged event. Once in full bloom they are abuzz with bees.

Mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

Mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

A shrub I’ve had for years is finally living up to it’s name — Brachyglottis (or maybe Senecio) “Sunshine.”

June 19, 2013

And we are having sunshine and the first really hot weather of the season (28 C), but there is sadness too because of the death today of our cat Zoey, who had lived here since 2000. She was a sweetie. The garden won’t be the same without her.



Magnificent Mulleins

Pound for pound, you get more out of mulleins (Verbascum species) than almost any other flowering garden plant.  They were favourites of Henry Mitchell, who appreciated big plants.  He wrote in praise of V. bombyciferum, which he called the “bomb-carrying mullein,” a type with leaves so fuzzy they are almost white.

The mullein I know best is V. olympicum, the Olympic mullein. It is well-named, being of Olympian proportions. I have had plants ten feet tall, although eight is more common. It grows splendidly in my sandy soil with little supplemental water, and is not troubled by the shade and maple tree roots that have rendered my back garden inhospitable to fussier plants.

The Olympic mullein, like many of its clan, is a biennial. In its first year it grows an impressive rosette of grey-green leaves up to 2 feet long and a formidable taproot. In its second year, it sends up a bloom stalk that develops through the spring and early summer, topping out between six and twelve feet.

In July, the plant begins to bloom, looking positively torch-like and attracting hordes of bees. There are zillions of buds, so the overall flowering effect lasts for weeks, but sometime in August things start to look a little sparse and spotty. At that point the thing to do is to take shears in hand and decapitate the plant, cutting just below the flowering side-stems.

A few weeks later, new flowering stems start to grow in the spots where the leaves join the main stalk, and soon there is a new flush of bloom that lasts well into the fall. That’s the stage my plants are in now, and given the generally dilapidated state of the garden, this fresh and vigorous mass of bloom is very welcome.  The bees think so too, and are back in such numbers that when you stand near a mullein,it sounds like the whole thing is buzzing.

I grew my first mulleins nearly 20 years ago, from purchased seeds. I let the first couple of plants I grew go to seed, ensuring that I would have them always, even though individual plants generally die the winter after they bloom. I recommend allowing a certain amount of seeding, but not letting plants have their way, in which case they truly are bomb-like, producing explosions of seedlings. A mullein forest would be rather surreal. It’s best to cut the plants down in late fall, once the second flush of bloom becomes sparse. And by “cut” I mean “saw,” because the stalks are 2 or 3 inches in diameter at the base and quite woody. They leave stumps which are best dug up the following year, when the roots have decayed somewhat.

Mulleins can be transplanted when they are young, up to about 8 inches tall and wide, before their taproots become too established. I select a few every fall or spring and position them where they will be assets rather than obstacles. Then I rigorously remove the rest of the volunteers, although I hate to dispose of such healthy and vigorous plants. But I don’t have room for a mullein forest.

Bees love mulleins