Hartley Magazine

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Verbascum ‘could be the ideal plant’

In an article for the UK national newspaper the Guardian, garden writer Kendra Wilson explained that great mullien is a wonderful plant.

It is alternatively known by its Latin binominal name of verbascum thapsus – although it has many colloquial names, such as Aaron's Rod, Jacob's Staff, Grandmother's Flannel, Beggar's Blanket and Witch's Taper.

"With its straggly spires and self-seeding ways, verbascum is my ideal plant," Ms Wilson commented, adding: "It does elegant as well as roadside."

For those who prefer to grow plants in the back of their property, the expert added that it also "manages to define a Beatrix Potter style of cottage garden while keeping its distance. It will work in any context you care to give it."

This could make it perfect for those who wish to bring a kitsch feel to their greenhouse, as it could look just lovely on either side of an entrance to the controlled climate area.

As a hardy perennial plant, it can grow to heights of two metres or more – and the plant is characterised by small yellow flowers that are very densely grouped together around a small stem. This in turn bolts out from a large rosette of leaves.

Verbascum is valued highly for the flowers, leaves and roots that it produces. Historically, the dried flowers have been used to make a wide range of substance – from insulation for shoes to hair dye – the latter being particularly noteworthy, as they can be used to produce hues of bright yellow or green.

It has even been linked to witchcraft and was occasionally used to ward off curses and ancient spirits. As an ancient plant – described by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia – it has also been used for medical purposes in the past – and the ancient Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist, Dioscorides recommended it for diseases of the lung.

Ms Wilson noted that it is still worth considering the benefits of verbascum for its properties as a healing plant.

"I know the big yellow one with large furry grey leaves (great mullein) is particularly valued by herbalists," she remarked, adding that: "I ask my neighbour Julia if she has any thoughts about it and she produces a jar filled with mullein buds steeping in extra virgin olive oil. It is in the early stages of becoming ear ointment."

She described the leaves of the great mullein variety as being very soft – comparing them to lamb's ear, meaning that it can be useful as a poultice. This means it could be beneficial for soothing plinters, skin eruptions, achings and swellings. It is very benign, which means there are no health risks to worry about associated with this use for the plant.

While the verbascum plant can grow in a wide range of habitats, it performs best in well-lit and disturbed soils, as it can appear very shortly after the ground starts to receive light. Particular care needs to be taken, as it is not a very competitive species when it comes to absorbing nutrients from the ground. For instance, it is intolerant of shade from other plants and is unable to survive tilling.

Ms Wilson noted that great mullein is not the only example of the plant for green-fingered enthusiasts who like to mix it up a bit. "If you can't cope with spikes of sulphur-yellow, you can choose terracotta, white, pale yellow," she explained.

The expert added that verbascum chaixii – also known as album – is particularly rich in color, as it has "purple-orange centres" and "a rarefied appearance".