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Gardening From Alaska

Verbascum bombyciferum
by Jeff Lowenfels
by Jeff Lowenfels


Jeff is the Past President of the Garden Writers of America, a columnist with the Anchorage Daily News, Host Alaska Gardens and Supporter of Plant a Row.

September 17, 2006

Several years ago I received a seedling of a plant known as Verbascum bombyciferum. Over the course of the season this little four-inch start grew into an immense plant that formed a three-foot diameter rosette of huge green leaves covered with a white to grey, hairy, woolie fuzz. If you closed your eyes while touching them, you could actually imagine you were petting the family dog.

I was disappointed that the plant didn’t flower and I assumed that it would not make it through the winter, but when the snows melted, there were those foot-long, doggie-soft leaves and soon a single, branching stalk known as a ‘panicle.’ Up it grew to perhaps seven feet, an informal candelabra covered with fuzzy, silver-gray flower buds about an inch across. These opened randomly, revealing a heavily buttered popcorn color that provided a deep contrast to the silver fuzz on the unopened blooms.

Unfortunately, we didn’t let any of the flowers of our Verbascum, known by its common name as “mullein,” go to seed so that was that was that for this biennial. However, in subsequent years others were planted and similarly enjoyed. They make an Alaskan theme when planted next to blue delphiniums or larkspar.

If you want a plant to rival the height of your ligularia and delphiniums and have the space, I highly recommend Verbascum bombyciferum. It is easy to grow from seed These large biennial verbascums have some cousins, however, know as “species mulleins” that are much smaller plants achieving only three or four feet in height and with pointed leaves that only grow six to eight inches. What is great about these Verbascums is that they act as annuals and even short-lived perennials.

Species mulleins are not ‘hairy’ and they display ½ inch flowers in a myriad of colors ranging from yellow to white, peach, terra cotta, buff, copper. Some have two colors with central ‘eyes’ one color and the petals another. These usually grow on single, non-branching, two to three foot stems known as “racemes.” Some, like the so-called ‘moth mullein” develop flowers on a panicle stalk. Other than staking the longer racemes, they require no care.

For example, V. chaixii has white flowers with a purple center growing on a four foot stem. It acts as a perennial in my garden as does a cousin that displays yellow with purple centers. Each plant develops multiple stems. Its self-seeding aspect ensures that they continue to show every year if one of these perennials dies off one winter.

All mulleins cross breed and consequently there are lots of different hybrids resulting in lots of color combinations. British visitors might actually take a few pictures of yours as growing mulleins is big in England and you might even have a hybrid they don’t.

In fact, this year I am going to collect seeds from some of our plants precisely because they do hybridize so easily. With all the good weather we have had and two beehives next to where I grow some, I am hoping to find some new color combinations on the plants I will start next spring. Actually, you don’t even need to collect these seeds because of their self-seeding abilities. If you know someone who is growing mullein, you might consider asking for some seed to toss into your gardens during late August.

Incidentally, mullein are really easy to start from seeds indoors if you barely cover them with soil, give the seed flats some bottom heat and have the patience to wait two weeks before they germinate. They can be ordered from several catalog sources including Thomson and Morgan,( WWW.THOMPSON-MORGAN.COM ), Busse Gardens ( WWW.BUSSEGARDENS.COM ) and Chiltern’s Seeds ( WWW.CHILTERNSEEDS.CP.UK ) . Hopefully, you will also be able to find some mullein seed next spring on local racks. Both the biennial and the self seeding, short lived perennial kinds are worth growing.

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