Thursday, May 27, 2010

Plant profile: Verbascum

Latin name: Verbascum  ("ver-BASK-um")
Common name: Mullein
Originally from: Mostly Europe but also Asia.
Blooms: Tall spikes of flowers are usually yellow, but can also be white, pastels shades, blue, purple, red or orange.
Light: Full sun
Water: Rain is plenty
Where to find in P. Garden: In the left bed across from the cactus wall we have several: Two Verbascum olympicum, and a Verbascum hybridum "Banana Custard." In the middle back bed we have three Verbascum sp. "Cotswold King."

Most of the plants at P. Garden are perennials - they live many years. We have a few annuals for one-year fill  in jobs too. But biennial plants - what's to love about 'em? Year one, they are small and weedy. Year two they go berserk and look great! Then they die. Pah - one year of amazement but a year of the blahs too... and then a hole in the bed after it dies? It's not worth it.

Or is it?

Let me introduce the Varbascums. About 250 species in the genus, several with a long history of use as a medicine, and treatment for asthma and respiratory disorders. It’s common name is mullein which sounds very old-fashioned to me. The name "mullein" has two possible derivations: It either comes from comes from mollis, which means soft in Latin, or the Latin word mulandrum, which comes from melanders - a disease of cattle this plant was used to treat. Verbascum derives from the word barbascum, which means "with beard." also says:
The leaves also are referred to as bunny’s ears and flannelleaf. The dried down on the leaves and stem ignites readily and once was used for lamp wicks; candlewick plant is another old name. The name hag taper refers to beliefs that a torch made from a mullein stalk dipped in tallow either was used by witches or would repel them. The custom of using mullein stalks as torches (by ordinary folk) dates back at least to Roman times. Jacob’s staff, Jupiter’s staff and Aaron’s rod are references to the tall flower stalk.

Until recently it was somewhat of a weed in some parts of the world. And then in 2000, people started hybridizing the mullein and the genus got a whole new lease on life!

They start out with a rosette of, commonly, silvery-furry leaves with wavy edges (left). In fact you might be tempted to plant the little low-growing thingies at the front of a bed and forget about them, like I did. Sort of like lamb’s ears in a spiral – dizzy lamb plant? Anyway, take your eye off them for a minute (actually a year) and suddenly one day you will notice to your shock and awe that they have grown to be eight feet tall overnight (bottom photo) and covered in yellow flowers! (Top photo.)

Hummingbirds will be bumping into them – that’s how suddenly they come up.  Last week a hummingbird flew up to me, over to the Verbascum that’s flowering now, and back to me, hovering right in front of my face as if to say “Have you seen that thing???”

Although this plant is a recent arrival to North America, Native Americans used the ground seeds of this plant as a paralytic fish poison due to their high levels of rotenone. So need I warn you not to put them in your goldfish bowl? I hope not.

The "Banana Custard" is flowering in the garden right now in the left bed. Check it out!

UPDATE June 2016:
After their 2 years of joy the Verbascums died out.  They were lovely - if we had funds for planting non-perennials I'd get more!

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