Growing to a height of 8 feet or more and topped with a bright yellow, cylindrical flower, mullein is one of those plants that have acquired many popular names throughout the centuries because of its myriad uses. The names Aaron’s rod and Jacob’s staff certainly refer to its sturdy stalk and quite possibly to its strength as a medicine. The nicknames torch, hedge taper, and candlewick plant were used in medieval Europe, where the tall plant was stripped of its leaves and the flower head saturated with oils and set ablaze as a ceremonial torch in funeral processions.
Velvet plant and old man’s flannel refer to mullein’s soft, gray-green, fuzzy leaves. Said to possess antibacterial properties, they have been used for dressing wounds and as poultices to cure aches and pains. Early American settlers who brought the seeds across the Atlantic steeped the leaves and flowers to make a soothing tea. (The seeds, however, are poisonous.) Mullein also was respected as a beautiful accent plant for the perennial border, and beekeepers grew it as a late-summer pollen source (it blooms from July to September) and because it readily perpetuates itself from seed.
A true biennial, mullein lives its first year from seed as a low, fuzzy rosette of gray-green leaves. The leaves keep their color through the winter, and in the spring the stalk rockets from the center of the rosette. Many gardeners cut off the flowers before the seed ripens to keep volunteer plants from taking over the garden. The seed, once dried, can be sown in fall. Its deep taproot system makes mullein hard to transplant but at the same time almost indestructible. It withstands drought and strong winds.
Today, mullein still enjoys a place in the perennial garden. Besides the common yellow or “great” mullein, there are white, blue, purple, and red hybrids. The towering flowers make an impressive background plant and are attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies.
If you are “mullein over” a new plant for your garden, this could be the one.