Great Mullein plants grow like weeds wherever conditions are right. They’re so common we overlook them as mere weeds, but their rich history is a fascinating look into how people have used plants throughout the centuries. In the wild, mullein grows much like foxglove with a ground hugging head of grey fuzzy leaves. They are flat and about the size of a human foot. It was not uncommon to line one’s shoe soles with mullein leaves to add winter insulation or cushion the foot. I’ve also learned that mullein leaves were once smoked for asthma, but that is of doubtful benefit! The flower stock bolts out of the center of the plant into a single spike of yellow tightly held blossoms. The Romans often dipped these into tallow or oil to use as a torch, hence the name Roman candle or torchweed. They also used this “candlewick plant” for wicks when fabric was scarce. Verbascum ‘Lavender Lass’ is sold via Wayside Gardens in our Cool Links section.
Mullein is native to Europe but came to America to naturalize with the colonists. It spread across the continent to the arid west where it thrives. My garden had no wild mullein until a load of horse manure brought them in to stay. Plants are biennial, dying out after the second year. Breeders have worked with these vigorous plants to make them more garden worthy. In the past few years these plants have been undergoing metamorphosis. The lowly yellow mullein has been crossed with other Verbascum species from around the world to create a new and wonderful perennial for gardens. They retain the vigor of their persistent weedy ancestor with big flowers and upright stalks. Verbascum ‘Carribbean Crush’ produces two feet of bloom on top of a whopping four foot stalk. Click on Wayside Gardens in our Cool Links to buy this plant online. Many of these new mulleins will bloom with a single stalk, then again with many if promptly deadheaded. An established plant can produce a dozen or more independent stalks for a virtual candelabra of color. If you’re bored with the same old foxglove, delphinium and hollyhock, mullein may be just the plant to make this year’s garden fresh and different.