This biennial behemoth is one of my favourite plants. Just last week a customer came into the garden centre clutching a photo and demanding to speak to someone intelligent who could identify his mystery plant. Apparently no-one in the neighborhood had planted it there on the side of the road, or could figure out what it was. I’m such a geek that I thoroughly enjoyed allowing the bombastic moniker roll off my tongue with the greatest of ease. If pronounced with enough fervour, it sounds like a magic spell conjured up by that wordsmith – J.K. Rowling. Just imagine…VERBASCUM BOMBYCIFERUM! It kinda sounds like a spell to make you explode if you don’t stop talking. Hmmm, that could be useful…
Anyways, the fellow was suitably impressed, as was another customer in the shop at the same time and my coworker couldn’t help laughing at me, she knows me too well. I wrote the name down for both customers so they could look it up for themselves (and perhaps display their expertise to the neighbours). It would be really amusing if they do some internet research and come across this post while searching for Verbascum bombyciferum!
I remember the first time I saw this majestic plant; it was about twenty years ago at VanDusen Botanical Garden. It stopped me in my tracks with its fuzzy silvery spikes sprouting sulphur yellow blossoms well above the top of my head.
Verbascum bombyciferum or Giant Silver Mullein is native to Turkey, and grows best in full sun, with well-drained, lean, alkaline soil. A biennial, it forms a large rosette of heavily felted leaves during its first season, looking very much like lamb’s ears (Stachys lanata) on steroids. The show really gets going the following year, when the stupendously fuzzy flower spikes poke out of the rosette and thrust skyward, reaching 6’-8’. The yellow blossoms are lovely, but almost superfluous to the architectural wonder of the spikes that carry them.
In the spring of 2009, the first year in my new garden, I planted one silver mullein in my front garden, reasoning that no deer would do more than nibble at such a fuzzy character. And I was right, Verbascum bombyciferum is one of the few plants that I would (almost) consider deerproof!
My husband was unimpressed with it the first year, and it did look a little out-of-place in a somewhat manicured planting with conifers and a big maple tree planted by the developer (and that’s a whole nother story that I’ll fill you in on later…).
He changed his tune though when, in 2010, my Verbascum put on an impressive growth spurt, and soon friends and neighbours were asking me, “What IS that thing?” And of course I would joyfully roll out my magical stop talking or else spell. I think it works, because the usual response to the words Verbascum bombyciferum was…silence.
Everything that I’ve read about this plant indicates that it’s a prolific self-seeder, so I left the spikes there for a long time after the blooms were finished and was looking forward to a generous crop of babies this year. I have three. Only one of which is even IN the front yard!?! One popped up in the back yard near my greenhouse, and another somehow germinated inside a hanging basket with a ten-year old ‘Wilma Verslot’ fuschia. Today I dug it out of the basket and potted it up; if it survives the rough treatment I’ll plant it out in the front somewhere.
I still have some seed I saved from last year, so I might try germinating some to get a few more plants. I should have started them already, but I’m just not that organized. Oh well, I’m sure to get even more seed from the Verbascum bombyciferum that bloom next year.