THE temporary gardens at the Royal Horticultural Society summer
shows can be an inspiration. They are also evidence of waxing and
waning plant fashions. Lupins may rule supreme at one year's
Chelsea Flower Show; cow parsley the next; and alliums the year
after. It is easy to fall for the current star, and make hasty
This year, at Chelsea, I was left swooning over the stately
spires of verbascums, and I suspect that there will be plenty at
the Hampton Court Flower Show, too. Their use at two events, six
weeks apart, would testify to the long flowering season of many of
the showy hybrids, which can only be a positive thing, back in our
own more permanent gardens.
The way the garden designers use the strong verticals of the
flower spikes as punctuation marks in a froth of more billowy
plants would translate, too. But it is worth understanding these
plants a little more before we make a purchase.
There are about 300 species of verbascum, commonly known as
mulleins, of which only a few are enjoyed in gardens. They are
diverse in appearance, but mostly biennial, forming a rosette of
leaves in their first year, and sending up flowering spires in the
second. Most need a hot, well-drained spot. If the British native,
common, or great mullein, Verbascum Thapsus, has
gate-crashed your plot, you can be fairly sure that its more
refined relatives will be happy, too.
Verbascum phoeniceum is a good place to start. It has
flowers that range from white through pink and lavender to maroon
and purple, on one-metre tall plants. If, as old-fashioned
gardeners are wont to say, it "likes" you, Verbascum
phoeniceum will self-sow in your garden, and, if you are
careful when weeding, you need never be without it, even though the
parent plants are not reliably perennial.
If you grow it with Verbascum olympicum, a species from
Turkey, which makes huge rosettes of white-felted leaves, and then
displays lemon-yellow flowers on spikes up to two metres high over
a long period in the second year, the two will hybridise. The
offspring will be intermediate in size, and will have lilac and tan
flowers. They will also be sterile.
Most of the garden hybrids wooing us at the shows with their
antique pastel or rusty shades were originally produced by crossing
V. phoeniceum with yellow species. They are sterile, and,
as such, will not self-seed in your garden. What is more, they are
themselves short-lived. You will need to take root cuttings to make
As well as V. phoeniceum, I value Verbascum
chaixii in my garden. It has small soft yellow flowers, with a
little tuft of purple stamens. V. chaixii "Album" is the
white form. Both are more reliably perennial than V.
phoeniceum, but share the attribute of gently self-seeding
If you find yourself falling for a hybrid verbascum such as
"Cotswold Queen", "Helen Johnson", or "Merlin", then remember that,
without some work on your part, it may be a short love affair.