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.
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.
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.
The rosebuds I noted a few weeks ago have burst into bloom, with more to come.
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.
The mulleins are getting into their rather lengthy season of bloom, lighting up the garden like yellow torches.
With almost no rain since April, and the hottest weeks of the summer soon to come, this may be as good as it gets…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.