June’s Tall Spires
Verbascum: Tall Spires.
Tall spires cast a statuesque pose in the summer garden; delphinium, larkspur, foxglove and now verbascum is making a comeback too. All are excellent choices if you are looking for plants with poise and grace for your garden bed. And although delphinium, larkspur and foxglove have always been popular here, verbascum hasn’t quite caught on yet so you will be ahead of the garden curve.
Verbascum looks something like a hollyhock (a tall flower spike standing well above its leaves) and holds a place in almost every British garden. As an old world plant, Romans carried its dried flower stalks as torches and the brits mullein spires as lamp wicks before the advent of cotton. Today Verbascum may finally jump the puddle. And for a couple of good reasons: Newer and more reliable varieties make them easier to grow and even more beautiful than before.
Let me back up a little here. My curiosity with verbascum started quite by accident. About five years ago, I noticed a small cluster of grey felted leaves springing up in my garden and I had no recollection of planting such a thing. After pulling my arm back from the weeding position, I decided to see what this little plant with soft fuzzy leaves would do. Not much. The first year it didn’t grow and “whatever it was” never bloomed. This was my first clue about this mystery plant— it must be a biennial (takes two years to flower) remember foxgloves are biennial too. Anyway, in the second year that rosette of wooly leaves took off Jack in the Beanstalk style! It grew more than eight feet tall almost overnight. This humongous flower stalk was surrounded with little yellow flowers and was situated in the most obvious spot in my garden—front and center. “What’s that?!” everyone would ask and then look horrified when I told them “It’s a weed I forgot to pull! Isn’t it wonderful?” I was still calling it “mullein” back then but its real name is Verbascum thapsus. You’ve probably seen this giant weedy looking thing growing wild along the roadside, embankments or vacant lots and never once thought “Hey wouldn’t that be fun to have in MY garden?”
But that’s the funny thing about horticulture, some varieties of the very same plant are very desirable and others… well… aren’t. Thus began my love affair with verbascum. Little did I know one of the world’s most influential plantsmen had already caught the verbascum “bug”. Dan Heims of Terra Nova Nurseries was already using test tube breeding to create 11 new varieties with more on the way. About four years ago, Heims saw its potential at the Chelsea Flower Show “Other than a few choice varieties created years ago in England, no one pushed the limits of this genus to see what it could do. I knew instantly.” Until recently ardent gardeners were content with v. ‘Helen Johnson’ or ‘Gainsborough’ with its large, strong and long flowering floral spikes. This year Heims introduced three new beauties ‘Gold Nugget’ ‘Lemon Sorbet’ and purple ‘Royalty’. They aren’t as tall (12 to 20 inches) as their country cousin (8 to 10 feet) but produce thousands of more vibrant, good sized flowers. I’m telling you, these are serious mulleins, er verbascum! And best of all, these varieties don’t like much water, bloom the very first year and come back two more and deer don’t nibble on the fuzzy leaves. What’s not to love?
Although my foray with mullein – verbascum began when a giant weed caught my imagination, the new cultivars are dynamic and spell binding in bloom. Master Gardeners believe “a weed is any plant in the wrong place” but this seed of serendipity gave new verbascum a treasured place in my summer garden.
Verbascum Plant Particulars
*Full Sun (6 hours or more)
*Flowers June/July (18” to 20” tall)
*Plant on hillsides, slopes, in containers, raised beds or gardens with excellent drainage.
*Loves poor soil (but not clay)
*Will not reseed
*Deer and rabbit resistant.
*Cut off flower spikes to encourage reblooming.
These plants have sterile seed that will not sprout. To grow more plants, find a root about as thick as a pencil, cut it off (this will not hurt the plant) and slice into 2” long pieces. Either replant the pieces into the garden or better yet grow them in a seed tray in compost. Water well. The roots will send up new shoots right away, but wait until new roots are poking out of the trays before potting up.
Verbascum ‘Gold Nugget’
(Available at Al’s Garden Centers) ‘Lemon Sorbet’
Verbascum ‘Sugar Plum’
(Available at: Farmington Gardens, Cornell Farms)