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Mulling Mulleins

Mulling Mulleins

By Dan Heims, president of Terra Nova Nurseries
Photographs courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries

Verbascum can be a curious lot! Wikipedia lists 120 species of verbascum, from alpine dwarfs to nine-foot tall giants, and flower color varies. These perennial and biennial plants also thrive on neglect, believe it or not, preferring poor, well-drained soils. And, if you have ever seen three-foot tall, yellow-flowering plants growing in gravel by the railroad tracks, you have seen how tough verbascum can be. 

Then, the question arises: “Why isn’t anybody breeding these?” Ranging from Siberia to Australia, these drought-loving perennials can bring beauty to many a home garden to thrive where others have failed. There have, of course, been a few fine hybrids out of England; the primrose-yellow spikes of Verbascum ‘Cotswold Queen’ seemingly adorned every other booth at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Terra Nova’s cracking breeding team has taken some of the best perennial varieties and turned them into sterile flowering machines. By adding hybrid vigor, Terra Nova has made signature varieties stronger, longer blooming and adaptable to “normal” garden soils. From the short (not dwarf) Verbascum ‘Dark Eyes’, with yellow flowers, to an assortment of others in purple, smoky lilac and honey tones, the Terra Nova selection of verbascum offers much to the grower and the homeowner, including deer and rabbit-resistance.

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Verbascum ‘Dark Eyes’

This introduction features a very short habit with large, felted-gray leaves in a rosette shape. Verbascum ‘Dark Eyes’ has cone-shaped spikes of large, creamy-yellow flowers that grow to 12” tall, with large, maroon centers that are sometimes referred to as “bees.” These “bees” adorn this plant from June to August in the hottest part of the garden. This variety is very drought resistant once established. It is wonderful in front of a sunny border, a rockery or along a pathway with stepping stones. Hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9, growers will appreciate that while this plant is short, it is not dwarf. It is also quite full and vigorous, and can fill a gallon pot in short order.

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Verbascum ‘Sugar Plum’

This crowd-pleaser carries large, clear-plum flowers on numerous spikes; to the unknowing, it almost looks like a bouquet was placed over its ring of foliage. This dwarf begins bloom in June, and reblooms for months if planted in full sun with good drainage. Reports have come back from Southern California that this plant has thrived. The cool-purple flowers of Verbascum ‘Sugar Plum’ are much appreciated in the Southern California color palette as an 18” echo for the Salvia leucantha, which is a plant that is so ubiquitous there. This is a plant for the short-mid border, for containers or for a rock garden. This gem can hold its own!

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Verbascum ‘Honey Dijon’

This is a sweet, compact plant with 18” flower spikes that display shades of peach and gold with a plum eye. It almost looks like a stack of upended honey dippers! If you have troubles with rabbits or deer, this group of plants is resistant, perhaps because of their fuzzy leaves. All verbascum, including ‘Honey Dijon’, are great plants for pollinators, supplying nectar and pollen deep into summer. This lovely variety is hardy from USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9. When in containers, the warm colors of Verbascum ‘Honey Dijon’ work with pelargoniums, lantana and other warm-toned annuals. It is an asset for the border and rock garden, and good color companion for Verbascum ‘Sugar Plum’.

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Verbascum ‘Plum Smokey’

A bouquet of smoky-purple blooms perched atop a rosette of wooly leaves is the reward for planting Verbascum ‘Plum Smokey’ in your garden. While many verbascum produce a single, terminal flower spike, Verbascum ‘Plum Smokey’ produces a multitude of 16″ flowering stems above the foliage. It also blooms for months in full sun with good drainage. As with most verbascum, deer and rabbits find the foliage distasteful and leave it alone. The color is a fine contrast to yellow- and gold-flowered plants in containers, borders and rock gardens. Full-sun exposure and less-rich soils pave the way for a great showing, from year one and beyond.

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Verbascum ‘Gold Nugget’

An explosion of large, gold flowers hover above a rocking rosette of soft, silvery leaves on a cluster of central stems. This winner has flowers and leaves both larger than Verbascum 'Jackie' on a nice compact plant. The spikes of red-centered flowers grow to 18” high, and prefer a poorer soil and a hot, sunny location. The nectar-rich flowers are a favorite for butterflies, and, being a sterile plant, the flowering season is much extended into summer over non-hybrid forms. Flowers from Verbascum ‘Gold Nugget’ can be used in arrangements, and there is no fear of seedlings spreading throughout the planting areas. This variety is excellent when used en masse in the border, container or rock garden.

Dan Heims is a published author of two books and lectures around the world. He has won the Reginald Cory Memorial Cup by the Royal Horticultural Society in 2003, the Award of Merit by the Perennial Plant Association in 2019, and the Luther Burbank Award by the American Horticultural Society in 2020.


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