Verbascum bombyciferum – Giant Silver Mullein

Verbascum bombyciferum - stop talking or else!

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 - Giant Silver Mullein

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.

Verbascum bombyciferum casts a spell on the maple tree - making it disappear!

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.

A Tisket a Tasket, Verbascum in a basket

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.

Verbascum bombyciferum seedling


About hortophile

I am a very opinionated, slightly obsessed gardener with decades of experience in the retail nursery industry. A lucky resident of the "Wet Coast" of British Columbia I tread a muddy path between practicality and beauty, with my veggie patch, herb garden and fruits vying for position with the beautiful trees, shrubs and flowers that I can't resist. DON'T ask me to choose between them! I believe in environmental responsibility and common sense.
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14 Responses to Verbascum bombyciferum – Giant Silver Mullein

  1. Hahahaahha…you and your big words. You know I have come to rely on that about you though right? 🙂 It is definitely a great part of your charm. And I learn something new from you pretty much every time we work together…even if I can’t pronounce it myself 🙂

  2. barb19 says:

    Wow – very impressive and unusual plant – I gotta get me one! Do you know if they grow in Australia? I guess I could Google it and find out, but I have to have one in my front yard! The photos are great!

  3. Dawn says:

    I LOVE that name – verbascum bomby-whatever. I rolled it around my tongue for awhile, before going into the article. I laughed a lot.

  4. bibprofessor says:

    wow, I plan to have a special mullein bed in my garden in Denmark, and I must have this one if it it can grow in Denmark ??, but perhaps I have to extend the size of the bed 🙂

    • hortophile says:

      This verbascum is supposed to be hardy to about -30C, how cold does it get in your garden? And give it plenty of room!

      • bibprofessor says:

        if you mean -30 celcius, it won’t have any problems, since in Denmark, we have it never colder (at least so far!) than around – 10C, but if you mean fahrenheit it is a problem ! while up here in Northern Norway where I live until I retire in a few years, in some parts we have down to – 45 C, that’s cold, but there are gardens and even an arctic botanical garden, but I have not found any verbascum yet up here ! and it might be too big for our bed, let’s see, thanks so far !

      • hortophile says:

        Yes, I meant -30 celsius. Where I live we only dip below -10 celsius a few days each winter, and some years we don’t even get there. This winter is projected to be a cold one though…

  5. Dee Chouinard says:

    Well, how amazing to come upon your site Hortophile and read your humorous take on that giant Silver Mullein (Verbascum Bombyciferum) !
    I just returned from my awesome local nursery Harper’s in Ancaster, Ontario where they identified this ‘thing’ growing right next to my front porch. Now that I know it is nothing to be afraid of, I will keep it and have joined your witty blog to enjoy in the process. Love it! Dee

  6. tim says:

    amazing plant, but such a shame its biannual…like so many good plants 😦
    one day scientists will find a way of turning bi-annuals in to perennials.

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