Greek Mullein Flowers: How To Grow Greek Mullein Plants

By: Teo Spengler

Gardeners use words like “imposing” or “statuesque” for Greek mullein plants for good reason. These plants, also called Olympic Greek mullein (Verbascum olympicum), rise to 5 feet or more, and produce such generous amounts of bright yellow flowers that, by late summer, the upper stalks are completely covered with them. Growing Olympic Greek mullein is not difficult if you plant the long-lived flowers appropriately and in the right spot.

Greek Mullein Plants

If you’ve never heard of Olympic Greek mullein, you’ve been missing something special. This species of mullein, native to Southern Greece and the Olympus Mountains in Turkey, is both attractive and elegant. Some say it is the finest plant in the Verbascum genus.

The plant’s foliage is evergreen and beautiful. The silvery felted leaves grow in broad rosettes low to the ground, almost like succulents. Each leaf can grow to a foot long and 5 inches wide. They lie on the ground, spread like a huge fan.

Greek mullein plants are tall and their flowers are as well. Greek mullein flowers grow on spikes from the center of the basal leaves. The yellow blossoms grow in thick and fast in summer, giving the Greek mullein plant the look of a blooming chandelier.

The flowers remain on the stalks most of the summer, often all the way through September. They attract many pollinators, including bees and butterflies. The plants look especially lovely in a cottage style garden.

How to Grow Greek Mullein

If you are wondering how to grow Greek mullein, it is not difficult. Direct sow the Olympic Greek mullein seeds in late summer or early fall in a garden spot with full sun and well-drained soil. If you plant in autumn, cover the seeds with a very thin layer of garden soil and a layer of organic mulch.

You can also start the seeds inside in spring. But first you’ll want to place the Olympic Greek mullein seeds, mixed with moistened growing medium, in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Leave them there a month before planting.

Greek mullein care is not difficult in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 9. They grow in acidic or alkaline soil.

Provide regular water while they are developing. Once the plants are established, they require little water.

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Olympic Greek Mullein - Learn About Greek Mullein Care In The Garden - garden

This very elegant mullein species native to Southern Greece and the Olympus mountains in Turkey is a very impressive plant and arguably the finest of the genus. The silvery-grey, felted evergreen basal leaves grow in wide rosettes in an attractive succulent-like basal rosette pattern. Each leaf can be 1ft long and nearly half as wide. They lie flat on the ground, like an open fan.

Verbascums are statuesque in both foliage and flower. From early to late summer, tall flower spikes rise rapidly from the centre of the foliage, followed by secondary flower spikes. Each are weighted heavily with bright, golden-yellow blooms giving the effect of an enormous candelabra. The 2.5cm (1in) blooms last all summer, from June to September. This is the mullein to grow for flower production as they are much easier to gather from than other varieties.

All verbascum species are an excellent choice for a cottage style or dry garden. This variety is very drought tolerant and suitable for costal planting. It is hardy to -18°C (0°F). It attracts a wide variety of pollinators, including bees and butterflies, and birds appreciate the seeds. It looks particularly well rising above plants that form large mounds of flowers.

Famed nursery woman Beth Chatto, who operates a nursery and display garden at White Barn House in Essex, views verbascum as a fine group of plants and gives V. olympicum an important front-of-the-border position for their summer show of spiky yellow-flowering stalks. In the Dry Garden, the silken silver foliage and bright yellow blooms of Verbascum olympicum make it look as though the area is being guarded by strange botanical sentinels.

Sowing: Sow in mid to late Spring or in late Summer to early Autumn
Sow in trays, pots, etc of well draining seed compost (John Innes or similar). The plants have a long tap root, so you may wish to use root trainers or long pots. (Take care when transplanting). Cover the seeds lightly with compost or medium-grade vermiculite to help keep the seed moist during germination. Avoid direct sunlight by shading seeds after sowing. Place in a propagator or warm place to maintain an optimum temperature of 15-18°C (60-65°F). Keep soil slightly moist but not wet. Germination 7-21 days.
Following germination, reduce the moisture levels somewhat, allowing the growing medium to dry out slightly before watering to help promote rooting. They are usually ready for transplanting in 5-7 weeks when the roots reach the bottom of the pot. Transplant into 10-18cm (4 to 7in) pots. Harden off and plant out when all risk of frost has passed 60cm (24in) apart in full sun. Leave the rosette to develop for the first year.

As with many plants, the covering of silvery down, indicates a special liking for sun and moist but sharply draining soil sites with poor drainage will most likely lead to plant mortality. They require a mulch in the winter for protection and a cool winter period (called vernalisation) before flowering the second season.
Verbascum is a moderate feeder. Growing them under high fertility regimes generally causes them to become very lush and delay flowering. Don't fertilize after mid Sept.
These evergreen plants keep their leaves year round, losing the aerial part during the coldest months of the year. Tidy the leaves in spring and then leave the plant to perform. The stems are woody and most verbascums do not need staking.
A short lived perennial it will probably live for around 3 to 4 years in well-drained soil.

Plant Uses:
Border, Mediterranean or Gravel Garden. Exposed Coastal planting. Problem areas. Architectural. Drought, heat, deer, slug and snail proof.

Flower Arrangements:
Pick the flowers as required. For dried flowers, place them face down on paper or racks away from light to preserve colour (and medicinal properties).

Verbascum olympicum is native to the mountains of Greece and Turkey.

The word 'Verbascum' is derived from a corrupted form of Barbascum, the ancient Latin name for this genus of plant. It is likely to have been derived from two Latin sources – ‘ver’ meaning ‘spring’ and / or ‘barbascum', which means ‘bearded plant’.
Native to the mountains of Greece and Turkey. Olympicum strictly means ‘from Mount Olympus’ but ‘Olympus’ may also translate as ‘heaven’ and so the plant may be a gift from the gods. 'Mullein' is from the Latin 'mollis' meaning soft.
One of the most common names is ‘the candlewick plant’ because the large soft furry leaves were cut into strips, dried, and used as wicks for candles.

When a plant sheds its common name and becomes known only by its official Latin title, it is a sure sign that it has come up in the world. The Verbascum has shrugged off as many as 10 downmarket pseudonyms as it has ascended the horticultural social scale, moving from the disorderly surroundings of the cottage garden to elegant colour-themed plantings. This stately plant, which combines architectural form with beautiful colouring, deserves this elevation


The tall taper of common mullein stands out in the garden when the stalk is covered with yellow blossoms. This plant is considered to be a weed by some and a valuable medicinal plant by others. Various Verbascum species are native to Europe and Asia. Verbascum thapsus, common mullein, has naturalized itself extensively in the United States and Australia and commonly grows in poor, hard packed soil in places such as highway embankments and clear cut areas.

Mullein belongs to the Scrophulariaceae family. The first year, this biennial forms a rosette of leaves near the ground the second year a tall flower stalk appears and can grow up to 6 feet in height. When grown in well composted garden soil, the plant produces large, oval shaped leaves are at least 2 feet long at the base of the plant and are progressively smaller toward the top of the stalk.

Mullein may appear as a volunteer in your garden. If you want to encourage its presence, acquaint yourself with the appearance of the first year plant to avoid removing it by mistake. First year mullein transplants fairly easily in the spring. Give new transplants plenty of water, as the young roots are shallow. Mullein needs full sun and well-drained soil. If you have a dry area in your garden, consider placing mullein there.

The soft, fuzzy, grayish green leaves of mullein gave rise to its Latin “mollis,” which means soft. When my dog Mochi died this spring, I covered her with various herbs, including a large, fresh mullein leaf, as mullein reminds me of her soft fur. I buried her in one of my herb gardens, nestled among three maple trees. Just recently five baby mullein plants appeared on her grave. These young plants remind me that life continues after death.

Mullein is easily grown from seed. Sow it directly into a bed in the fall or spring or start it indoors in flats in the early spring. The seed needs light to germinate, so don’t cover it. I have observed something interesting over several years of growing mullein: I had assumed the first few years I had mullein flowers that I would have hundreds of mullein plants reseeding the following year, because the stalks are loaded with seed. This has never been so, however, because mullein seeds are a favorite of goldfinches. In the late summer and fall, the dried stalks are covered with finches who bend them over as they clamor for the precious seeds. I learned to bend the stalks and gently tap them to collect seed for the following year by watching the finches. If you want to collect seed, be sure to do it soon after the seeds form and ripen. Usually by late August or early September the flower stalks have dried and the ripe seeds easily fall into your hand when you bend and tap the stalk.

The Romans called mullein “candelaria,” as they used the dried stalks for candles. In Old Europe mullein was thought to protect people against illness and darkness. The monastic gardens had mullein growing in them to keep out the devil. Mullein was considered to provide light, or to light one’s path. As a woman who respects the work of writers such as Carl Jung, Patricia Reis and James Hillman, I would say that mullein helps us to see more clearly or illuminate the shadow aspects within ourselves, our family, our community and our culture. I believe we cannot have light without darkness and darkness without light.

For years I have had the common mullein, Verbascum thapsus, growing in my gardens. Last year I transplanted over 60 Greek mullein plants, Verbascum olympicum, as I had heard from several herbalists that the flowers of this species were much easier to pick for medicine. Behind the arbor at Avena’s garden this summer, a spectacular show of yellow tapers, all over 6 feet tall, appeared, beginning their bloom in late June. This species puts out multiple upright stalks, each covered with hundreds of flowers, which the bees adore.

We hang small baskets around our necks and hand pick the flowers early in the morning once the dew has disappeared and before the sun makes the flowers wilt. We then fill glass jars with the fresh flowers, cover them completely with olive oil and let them infuse in a warm place (an oven with a pilot light at 85 degrees F. is ideal) for two weeks. The flowers of both species, V. thapsus and V. olympicum, contain aromatic volatile oils, which ease the pain of an earache. As long as the eardrum is not perforated, one to three drops of fresh mullein flower oil is remarkable at relieving inflammation and pain in the ear and eliminating wax accumulation. I mix fresh St. Johnswort, calendula and garlic oils with the mullein oil, as these herbs together are very effective for resolving ear infections. I also make a tincture from the fresh flowers for internal use. This tincture soothes a deep, dry, painful and irritating cough.

Mullein leaves gathered from first- or second-year plants before the flower stalks appear can be used fresh in tea throughout the summer or tinctured when fresh. Dry the leaves from V. thapsus, as V. olymicum leaves do not dry well. Mullein leaves are valuable for various respiratory problems. The leaf has a mildly bitter and pungent taste, which makes it useful in reducing fevers and opening the lungs. Mullein’s mucilaginous quality is useful for soothing harsh, dry, racking coughs where the tissue of the lungs has become irritated. Mullein leaf tea is soothing to dry, irritating coughs, sore throats, laryngitis, and acute and chronic bronchitis. It is specific for coughs that have a deep, hollow sound and that cause pain in the diaphragm, abdomen or lower ribs from the force and frequency of the cough. Dryness and harsh coughing wear down the tiny hairs called villi, which line the mucous membranes of the lungs. The villi of the lungs get worn down from other situations, such as smoking, overexposure to various air pollutants, wood dust and toxic fumes. Mullein leaf is an appropriate herb to add to a tea mix along with red clover, plantain, calendula blossoms and marshmallow leaf and root for healing damaged lung tissue. Mullein leaf, calendula and Echinacea root in combination help to reduce swollen glands.

Mullein flowers and leaves combined with other herbs help relax the chest in someone who has asthma, croup, emphysema or whooping cough. Mullein’s ability to relax the muscles of the chest and open the airways makes breathing easier. On summer days when the ozone level is high and breathing is difficult, I add mullein leaf to my tea.

I consider mullein leaf tea to be an ally in autumn for people who tend to get colds that settle in their lungs with the onset of fall, for people who find the transition from summer to fall difficult, and for people who are grieving. Grief is the emotion associated with the lungs and colon in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Autumn is the time for letting go, for releasing what we do not need anymore. It is the time of year when we say farewell to our gardens and migrating birds. Everything in nature is contracting, pulling inward and downward, preparing for winter. Supporting the health of our lungs with herbs such as mullein and garlic helps to prevent respiratory problems as we move from fall to winter.

Topically, mullein leaf can be used as a poultice or compress to ease the pain of arthritic joints and aching muscles, and to heal wounds, burns and bruises. A tea with mullein leaf, nettle, calendula, red clover, rosemary and yarrow is effective for soothing and healing hot spots on animals.

British Herbalist Anne McIntyre writes in her book The Complete Floral Healer about mullein as a flower essence. “Mullein again is the remedy of light, an inner light to guide us along our path. It is also a remedy for uprightness, honesty, moral conscience, particularly for those who feel weak or confused, unable to tune into their inner voice, or who are wrestling with their conscience. It is helpful when needing inner strength to withstand social pressures or trends, tempting one to lie either to oneself or to others, and to help sort out moral values. It can be taken for indecision, to clarify or hear better your inner voice, or to be guided by your inner light, and thus lead towards a greater fulfillment of your true potential. Mullein helps you to be true to yourself.”



Verbascum Olympicum is a drought-tolerant candelabra, a tall spike of flowers that loves sun and prefers poor soil. In its first year it puts out a rosette of large, fuzzy grey leaves that lie flat to the ground. In its second season, the plant will grow to reach nearly two metres. Between June and September its bright, buttery-YELLOW flowers appear on the spires.

Traditional uses of Verbascum have included tea made from leaves or flowers to treat bronchitis, chest colds and asthma its antiviral and anti-inflammatory benefits are being investigated.

The plant’s name, Verbascum, may come from the Latin ‘ver’ (spring) and ‘barbatus’ (beard), which refers to the plant’s hairy stamens. Olympicum means, strictly, ‘from Mount Olympus’ – but ‘Olympus’ may also translate as ‘heaven’, so the plant may be a gift from the gods.

Our native Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, was grown in monastery gardens to keep out the devil. Ihe flowers produce a yellow dye, used since Roman times to dye cloth, which was also used as a hair rinse.

Other names: Aaron’s Rod, Beggar’s Blanket, Bunny’s ears, Candlewick Plant, Donkey’s ears, Flannel leaf, Great Mullein, High Taper, Jacob’s staff, Jupiter’s staff, Shepherd’s Club, Velvet Plant.

“Candlewick plant” refers to the old practice of using the dried down of mullein leaves and stems to make lamp wicks. Some say mullein stems once were dipped in tallow to make torches either used by witches or used to repel them, hence the name “hag taper.” The custom of using mullein for torches dates back at least to Roman times.

Verbascum olympicum, late summer, Gillespie Park

Bees’ Favourite.

Verbascums are labelled ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ by the RHS. Many bees were indeed enthusiastic visitors to our statuesque Mullein. Once the blooms had gone over small birds, especially the Great Tits, attached themselves to the plant’s spent flower spike and pecked their way through its seeds.

Seven Greek candelabras grew in nearby Gillespie Park the season we grew our lone Mullein. Those seven had space all round them and got plenty of sunshine in the rock garden behind the Ecology Centre they were still flowering when our Mullein had finished.

Verbascum Olympicum can grow to two metres (six feet). Ours fell short of that height, probably protesting to itself, ‘Why am I here in Highbury Vale? Where is my mountain?’

This Verbascum would have had plenty of space and light when it flowered in the garden at Great Dixter, leaving behind a dramatic architectural silhouette. It looks to have spent much of its time lecturing the topiary.


  • 1 Description
  • 2 Taxonomy
    • 2.1 Subspecies and hybrids
    • 2.2 Common names
  • 3 Distribution and habitat
  • 4 Ecology
  • 5 Fossil record
  • 6 Agricultural impacts and control
  • 7 Uses
    • 7.1 Phytochemicals
    • 7.2 Traditional medicine
    • 7.3 Other uses
  • 8 Notes
  • 9 References
    • 9.1 Bibliography
  • 10 External links

V. thapsus is a dicotyledonous plant that produces a rosette of leaves in its first year of growth. [3] [4] The leaves are large, up to 50 cm long. The second-year plants normally produce a single unbranched stem, usually 1–2 m tall. In the eastern part of its range in China, it is, however, only reported to grow up to 1.5 m tall. [5] The tall, pole-like stems end in a dense spike of flowers [3] that can occupy up to half the stem length. All parts of the plants are covered with star-shaped trichomes. [5] [6] This cover is particularly thick on the leaves, giving them a silvery appearance. The species' chromosome number is 2n = 36. [7]

On flowering plants, the leaves are alternately arranged up the stem. They are thick and decurrent, with much variation in leaf shape between the upper and lower leaves on the stem, ranging from oblong to oblanceolate, and reaching sizes up to 50 cm long and 14 cm across (19 inches long and 5 inches wide). [8] [9] They become smaller higher up the stem, [3] [4] and less strongly decurrent down the stem. [3] The flowering stem is solid and 2–2.5 cm (nearly an inch) across, and occasionally branched just below the inflorescence, [4] usually following damage. [10] After flowering and seed release, the stem and fruits usually persist in winter, [11] drying into dark brown, stiff structures of densely packed, ovoid-shaped, and dry seed capsules. The dried stems may persist into the following spring or even the next summer. The plant produces a shallow taproot. [9]

Flowers are pentamerous with (usually) five stamen, a five-lobed calyx tube and a five-petalled corolla, the latter bright yellow and an 1.5–3 cm (0.59–1.18 in) wide. The flowers are almost sessile, with very short pedicels (2 mm, 0.08 in). The five stamens are of two types, with the three upper stamens being shorter, their filaments covered by yellow or whitish hairs, and having smaller anthers, while the lower two stamens have glabrous filaments and larger anthers. [6] [note 1] The plant produces small, ovoid (6 mm, 0.24 in) capsules that split open by way of two valves, each capsule containing large numbers of minute, brown seeds less than 1 mm (0.04 in) [12] in size, marked with longitudinal ridges. A white-flowered form, V. thapsus f. candicans, is known to occur. [13] Flowering lasts up to three months from early to late summer (June to August in northern Europe), [4] with flowering starting at the bottom of the spike and progressing irregularly upward each flower opens for part of a day and only a few open at the same time around the stem. [11]

For the purpose of botanical nomenclature, Verbascum thapsus was first described by Carl Linnaeus in his 1753 Species Plantarum. The specific epithet thapsus had been first used by Theophrastus (as Θάψος , Thapsos) [14] for an unspecified herb from the Ancient Greek settlement of Thapsos, near modern Syracuse, Sicily, [14] [15] though it is often assimilated to the ancient Tunisian city of Thapsus. [16]

At the time, no type specimen was specified, as the practice only arose later, in the 19th century. When a lectotype (type selected amongst original material) was designated, it was assigned to specimen 242.1 of Linnaeus' herbarium, the only V. thapsus specimen. [note 2] The species had previously been designated as type species for Verbascum. [18] European plants exhibit considerable phenotypical variation, [19] which has led to the plant acquiring many synonyms over the years. [17] [20] Introduced American populations show much less variation. [19]

The taxonomy of Verbascum has not undergone any significant revision since Svanve Mürbeck's monographies in the 1930s, with the exception of the work of Arthur Huber-Morath, who used informal group in organizing the genus for the florae of Iran and Turkey to account for many intermediate species. Since Huber-Morath's groups are not taxonomical, Mürbeck's treatment is the most current one available, as no study has yet sought to apply genetic or molecular data extensively to the genus. In Mürbeck's classification, V. thapsus is placed in section Bothrospermae subsect. Fasciculata (or sect. Verbascum subsect. Verbascum depending on nomenclatural choices) alongside species such as Verbascum nigrum (black or dark mullein), Verbascum lychnitis (white mullein) and Verbascum sinuatum (wavy-leaved mullein). [21] [22] [23] [24]

Subspecies and hybrids Edit

Hybrids of Verbascum thapsus [7] [25]
Hybrid name Other
parent species
V. × duernsteinense Teyber V. speciosum
V. × godronii Boreau V. pulverulentum
V. × kerneri Fritsch V. phlomoides
V. × lemaitrei Boreau V. virgatum
V. × pterocaulon Franch. V. blattaria
V. × thapsi L. V. lychnitis syn. V. × spurium
W.D.J.Koch, may be a
nomen ambiguum [26]
V. × semialbum Chaub. V. nigrum
none V. pyramidatum

There are three usually recognized subspecies:

  • V. thapsus subsp. thapsus type, widespread.
  • V. thapsus subsp. crassifolium (Lam.) Murb. Mediterranean region and to 2000 metres in southwestern Austria. [27] (syn. subsp. montanum (Scrad.) Bonnier & Layens)
  • V. thapsus subsp. giganteum (Willk.) Nyman Spain, endemic.

In all subspecies but the type, the lower stamens are also hairy. [28] In subsp. crassifolium, the hairiness is less dense and often absent from the upper part of the anthers, while lower leaves are hardly decurrent and have longer petioles. [27] In subsp. giganteum, the hairs are densely white tomentose, and lower leaves strongly decurrent. Subsp. crassifolium also differs from the type in having slightly larger flowers, which measure 15–30 mm wide, whereas in the type they are 12–20 mm in diameter. [27] Both subsp. giganteum and subsp. crassifolium were originally described as species. [3] Due to its morphological variation, V. thapsus has had a great many subspecies described. A recent revision led its author to maintain V. giganteum but sink V. crassifolium into synonymy. [24]

The plant is also parent to several hybrids (see table). Of these, the most common is V. × semialbum Chaub. (× V. nigrum). [7] All occur in Eurasia, [7] and three, V. × kerneri Fritsch, V. × pterocaulon Franch. and V. × thapsi L. (syn. V. × spurium W.D.J.Koch), have also been reported in North America. [25] [29]

Common names Edit

V. thapsus is known by a variety of names. European reference books call it "great mullein". [30] [31] [32] In North America, "common mullein" is used [33] [34] while western United States residents commonly refer to mullein as "cowboy toilet paper". [35] [36]

In the 19th century it had well over 40 different common names in English alone. Some of the more whimsical ones included "hig candlewick", "indian rag weed", "bullicks lungwort", "Adams-rod", "hare's-beard" and "ice-leaf". [37] Vernacular names include innumerable references to the plant's hairiness: "woolly mullein", "velvet mullein" or "blanket mullein", [32] [38] "beggar's blanket", "Moses' blanket", "poor man's blanket", "Our Lady's blanket" or "old man's blanket", [31] [34] [39] and "feltwort", and so on ("flannel" is another common generic name). "Mullein" itself derives from the French word for "soft". [40]

Some names refer to the plant's size and shape: "shepherd's club(s)" or "staff", "Aaron's Rod" (a name it shares with a number of other plants with tall, yellow inflorescences), and a plethora of other "X's staff" and "X's rod". [31] [34] [41] The name "velvet dock" or "mullein dock" is also recorded, where "dock" is a British name applied to any broad-leaved plant. [42]

Verbascum thapsus has a wide native range including Europe, northern Africa and Asia, from the Azores and Canary Islands east to western China, north to the British Isles, Scandinavia and Siberia, and south to the Himalayas. [5] [43] [44] In northern Europe, it grows from sea level up to 1,850 m altitude, [4] while in China it grows at 1,400–3,200 m altitude. [5]

It has been introduced throughout the temperate world, and is established as a weed in Australia, New Zealand, tropical Asia, La Réunion, North America, Hawaii, Chile, Hispaniola and Argentina. [44] [45] [46] [47] It has also been reported in Japan. [48]

In the United States it was imported very early in the 18th [note 3] century and cultivated for its medicinal and piscicide properties. By 1818, it had begun spreading so much that Amos Eaton thought it was a native plant. [note 4] [9] [49] In 1839 it was already reported in Michigan and in 1876, in California. [9] It is now found commonly in all the states. [50] In Canada, it is most common in the Maritime Provinces as well as southern Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, with scattered populations in between. [19] [51]

Great mullein most frequently grows as a colonist of bare and disturbed soil, usually on sandy or chalky ones. [7] It grows best in dry, sandy or gravelly soils, although it can grow in a variety of habitats, including banksides, meadows, roadsides, forest clearings and pastures. This ability to grow in a wide range of habitats has been linked to strong phenotype variation rather than adaptation capacities. [52]

Great mullein is a biennial and generally requires winter dormancy before it can flower. [10] This dormancy is linked to starch degradation activated by low temperatures in the root, and gibberellin application bypasses this requirement. [53] Seeds germinate almost solely in bare soil, at temperatures between 10 °C and 40 °C. [10] While they can germinate in total darkness if proper conditions are present (tests give a 35% germination rate under ideal conditions), in the wild, they in practice only do so when exposed to light, or very close to the soil surface, which explains the plant's habitat preferences. While it can also grow in areas where some vegetation already exists, growth of the rosettes on bare soil is four to seven times more rapid. [10]

Seeds germinate in spring and summer. Those that germinate in autumn produce plants that overwinter if they are large enough, while rosettes less than 15 cm (6 in) across die in winter. After flowering the entire plant usually dies at the end of its second year, [10] but some individuals, especially in the northern parts of the range, require a longer growth period and flower in their third year. Under better growing conditions, some individuals flower in the first year. [54] Triennial individuals have been found to produce fewer seeds than biennial and annual ones. While year of flowering and size are linked to the environment, most other characteristics appear to be genetic. [55]

A given flower is open only for a single day, opening before dawn and closing in the afternoon. [19] Flowers are self-fecundating and protogynous (with female parts maturing first), [19] and will self-pollinate if they have not been pollinated by insects during the day. While many insects visit the flowers, only some bees actually accomplish pollination. The flowering period of V. thapsus lasts from June to August in most of its range, extending to September or October in warmer climates. [9] [10] [12] Visitors include halictid bees and hoverflies. [11] The hair on lower stamens may serve to provide footholds for visitors. [19]

The seeds maintain their germinative powers for decades, up to a hundred years, according to some studies. [56] Because of this, and because the plant is an extremely prolific seed bearer (each plant produces hundreds of capsules, each containing up to 700+ seeds, [19] with a total up to 180,000 [9] [10] or 240,000 [12] seeds), it remains in the soil seed bank for extended periods of time, and can sprout from apparently bare ground, [10] or shortly after forest fires long after previous plants have died. [12] Its population pattern typically consists of an ephemeral adult population followed by a long period of dormancy as seeds. [19] Great mullein rarely establishes on new grounds without human intervention because its seeds do not disperse very far. Seed dispersion requires the stem to be moved by wind or animal movement 75% of the seeds fall within 1 m of the parent plant, and 93% fall within 5 m. [10]

Megachilid bees of the genus Anthidium use the hair (amongst that of various woolly plants) in making their nests. [57] The seeds are generally too small for birds to feed on, [11] although the American goldfinch has been reported to consume them. [58] Other bird species have been reported to consume the leaves (Hawaiian goose) [59] or flowers (palila), [60] or to use the plant as a source when foraging for insects (white-headed woodpecker). [61] Additionally, deer and elk eat the leaves. [62]

Seed of Verbascum thapsus has been recorded from part of the Cromer Forest Bed series and at West Wittering in Sussex from some parts of the Ipswichian interglacial layers. [63]

Because it cannot compete with established plants, great mullein is no longer considered a serious agricultural weed and is easily crowded out in cultivation, [19] except in areas where vegetation is sparse to begin with, such as Californian semi-desertic areas of the eastern Sierra Nevada. In such ecological contexts, it crowds out native herbs and grasses its tendency to appear after forest fires also disturbs the normal ecological succession. [10] [12] Although not an agricultural threat, its presence can be very difficult completely to eradicate and is especially problematic in overgrazed pastures. [9] [10] [12] The species is legally listed as a noxious weed in the American state of Colorado (Class C) [64] and Hawaii, [65] and the Australian state of Victoria (regionally prohibited in the West Gippsland region, and regionally controlled in several others). [66]

Despite not being an agricultural weed in itself, it hosts a number of insects and diseases, including both pests and beneficial insects. [67] It is also a potential reservoir of the cucumber mosaic virus, Erysiphum cichoraceum (the cucurbit powdery mildew) and Texas root rot. [19] [68] A study found V. thapsus hosts insects from 29 different families. Most of the pests found were western flower thrips (Frankliniella occidentalis), Lygus species such as the tarnished plant bug (L. lineolaris), and various spider mites from the family Tetranychidae. These make the plant a potential reservoir for overwintering pests. [67]

Other insects commonly found on great mullein feed exclusively on Verbascum species in general or V. thapsus in particular. They include mullein thrips (Haplothrips verbasci), [67] Gymnaetron tetrum (whose larva consume the seeds) and the mullein moth (Cucullia verbasci). [9] Useful insects are also hosted by great mullein, including predatory mites of the genera Galendromus, Typhlodromus and Amblyseius, the minute pirate bug Orius tristicolor [67] and the mullein plant bug (Campylomma verbasci). [69] The plant's ability to host both pests and beneficials makes it potentially useful to maintain stable populations of insects used for biological control in other cultures, like Campylomma verbasci and Dicyphus hesperus (Miridae), a predator of whiteflies. [70] [71] A number of pest Lepidoptera species, including the stalk borer (Papaipema nebris) and gray hairstreak (Strymon melinus), also use V. thapsus as a host plant. [72]

Control of the plant, when desired, is best managed via mechanical means, such as hand pulling and hoeing, preferably followed by sowing of native plants. Animals rarely graze it because of its irritating hairs, and liquid herbicides require surfactants to be effective, as the hair causes water to roll off the plant, much like the lotus effect. Burning is ineffective, as it only creates new bare areas for seedlings to occupy. [9] [10] [12] G. tetrum and Cucullia verbasci usually have little effect on V. thapsus populations as a whole. [12] Goats and chickens have also been proposed to control mullein. [10] Effective (when used with a surfactant) contact herbicides include glyphosate, [9] [12] triclopyr [9] and sulfurometuron-methyl. [12] Ground herbicides, like tebuthiuron, are also effective, but recreate bare ground and require repeated application to prevent regrowth. [10]

Phytochemicals Edit

Phytochemicals in Verbascum thapsus flowers and leaves include saponins, polysaccharides, mucilage, flavonoids, tannins, iridoid and lignin glycosides, and essential oils. [2] The plant's leaves, in addition to the seeds, have been reported to contain rotenone, although quantities are unknown. [73]

Traditional medicine Edit

Although long used in herbal medicine, there are no drugs manufactured from its components. [2] Dioscorides first recommended the plant 2000 years ago, believing it useful as a folk medicine for pulmonary diseases. [74] Leaves were smoked to attempt to treat lung ailments, a tradition that in America was rapidly transmitted to Native American peoples. [31] [75] The Zuni people, however, use the plant in poultices of powdered root applied to sores, rashes and skin infections. An infusion of the root is also used to treat athlete's foot. [76] All preparations meant to be drunk have to be finely filtered to eliminate the irritating hairs. [53]

Oil from the flowers was used against catarrhs, colics, earaches, frostbite, eczema and other external conditions. [31] Topical application of various V. thapsus-based preparations was recommended for the treatment of warts, [77] boils, carbuncles, hemorrhoids, and chilblains, amongst others. [31] [75] Glycyrrhizin compounds with bactericide effects in vitro were isolated from flowers. [78] The German Commission E describes uses of the plant for respiratory infections. [79] It was also part of the National Formulary in the United States [75] and United Kingdom. [31]

The plant has been used in an attempt to treat colds, croup, sunburn and other skin irritations. [80]

Other uses Edit

Roman soldiers are said to have dipped the plant stalks in grease for use as torches. Other cultures use the leaves as wicks. [80] Native Americans and American colonists lined their shoes with leaves from the plant to keep out the cold. [80] [31] [75]

Mullein may be cultivated as an ornamental plant. [1] As for many plants, (Pliny the Elder described it in his Naturalis Historia), [note 5] great mullein was linked to witches, [31] although the relationship remained generally ambiguous, and the plant was also widely held to ward off curses and evil spirits. [31] [53] [74] [75] The seeds contain several compounds (saponins, glycosides, coumarin, rotenone) that are toxic to fish, and have been widely used as piscicide for fishing. [9] [82]

Due to its weedy capacities, the plant, unlike other species of the genus (such as V. phoeniceum), is not often cultivated. [1]

Grow Your Own Toilet Paper

Believe it or not, toilet paper doesn’t grow on trees. Photo:

The COVID-19 crisis has seen many runs on toilet paper throughout the world, with stores emptied of this precious commodity. Perhaps the time has come to rediscover the original toilet paper—plant leaves!—and reincorporate them into our lives.

11 Toilet Paper Plants From All Over The World

Many plants have been used for anal cleaning over the millennia, including the following:

  1. Common Mullein or Cowboy Toilet Paper (Verbascum thapsus)
First year rosette of common mullein (Verbascum thapsus). Photo:

Yes, the common biennial weed. It forms a broad first-year rosette of fuzzy, soft, gray-green leaves.

The flower stalk of common mullein appears in year 2. Photo: Larry Allain, U.S. Geological Survey

In year two, an attractive upright single flower stalk of yellow blooms up to 6 feet (2 m) rises from the center and blooms last most of the summer. You could grow it around your outhouse or dry the leaves for winter use. Full sun. Well-drained to dry soil. USDA hardiness zones 3–9.

Olympic or Greek mullein (V. olympicum) is similar in leaf, but more impressive in bloom. Photo:

Might I suggest that Olympic or Greek mullein (V. olympicum) has leaves just as soft and is a prettier plant, with dramatic multi-branched clusters of yellow blooms and is just as readily grown from seed?

Silver mullein (V. bombyciferum) is more beautiful than the others… and makes even softer toilet paper! Photo:

Better yet—far better!—is my favorite mullein, silver mullein (V. bombyciferum), with just about the softest leaves found on any plant, abundantly covered with silky white hairs, making the whole rosette silvery white. And it produces stunning single silver-downy stalks of yellow flowers in year two like the others.

Both species grow under the same conditions as common mullein and are just as hardy: zones 3–9.

  1. Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina)
This cultivar of lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), ‘Silver Carpet’, produces only the downy leaves we all want, not the pink flowers. Photo: David J. Stang, Wikimedia Commons

This popular groundcover perennial is grown for its soft, downy, silvery leaves which, it turns out, have other purposes than beautifying. A creeping plant that readily fills in empty garden spaces, it also produces upright silvery flower stalks of purplish-pink blooms. The leaves are evergreen (eversilver might be a more appropriate word in this case), so you’ll have access to it all year … unless it is buried for months under snow in your area. Grow it in full sun and give it good drainage. Hardiness zones 3–8.

  1. Blue Spur Flower or Indian Coleus (Coleus barbatus, formerly Plectranthus barbatus, often sold under the illegitimate botanical name Plectranthus forskohlii)
Blue spur flower (Coleus barbatus) in bloom. Photo:

This is a medicinal herb with large, thick, fuzzy leaves on square stems I first ran into under “boldo brasileiro,” the name it goes under in Brazil, when Brazilian friend gave me a cutting. It becomes huge—6 to 8 feet tall (2-2.5 m)—if you don’t pinch it back, but then if you pinch it back you won’t see the fall-forming spikes of blue flowers: a true gardener’s quandary. But if you’re growing it indoors, I suggest keeping it under control.

The big soft leaves of blue spur flower. Photo: Paulo Pedro P. R. Costa, Wikimedia Commons

This is one you could grow in your home bathroom … at least a sunny one, as it makes a good houseplant. Outdoors, it’s subtropical, surviving but dying to the ground in zone 8, but resprouting there come spring. It will grow as a shrub in frost-free areas. Full sun. Good drainage. Hardiness zones 8–10.

  1. Large-leaved Aster or Lumberjack Toilet Paper (Eurybia macrophylla, formerly Aster macrophyllus)
The large-leaved aster (Eurybia macrophyllamakes a great shade ground cover. Photo:

This is a perennial aster native to eastern North America with very large, heart-shaped leaves at the base, conveniently soft, and rather discreet pale violet-blue daisylike flowers in the fall. A shade-tolerant species, you’ll often find it at the forest’s edge in the wild. It prefers moist soils and does wonderfully in home gardens. Hardiness zones 3–8.

  1. Cheeseweed or Wild Mallow (Malva neglecta and M. parviflora)
Cheeseweed (Malva neglecta). Photo:

These two similar-looking species are common weeds throughout much of the world. You probably already have one or the other in your garden already, so the necessary leaves won’t be hard to find. They have rounded, somewhat lobed, soft leaves and typical five-petaled mallow flowers in pink or white. Both can be either annuals or perennials. They get the name “cheeseweed” from the seed head, looking a bit like a wheel of green cheese. Full sun. Hardiness zones 3–8.

Tree mallow (Malva arborea), better known in some quarters are dunny leaf or Irish toilet paper. Photo:

You’ll find other mallows that are just as useful. In England, tree mallow (M. arborea, formerly Lavatera arborea), a very attractive and very tall species (up to 10 feet/3 m!), is known as dunny leaf or Irish toilet paper. Zones 6–10. It acts as an annual, a biennial or a perennial, depending on local conditions.

In Mexico and Southern California, a native mallow (M. assurgentifola) is the toilet paper mallow of choice. Hardiness zones 9–10.

  1. Velvet Groundsel (Roldana petasitis, better known under its former name Senecio petasitis)
Velvet Groundsel (Roldana petasitis). Photo: Kenraiz, Wikimedia Commons

Possibly your favorite toilet paper plant if you’re from its native range: Mexico and Central America. It’s apparently so abundantly used for that purpose that it has become quite rare in the wild in some places due to overharvesting. This shrubby groundsel bears huge, velvety, somewhat rounded, lightly lobed leaves on upright stems, plus masses of yellow flowers in the winter. It’s becoming popular in California gardens as an ornamental, adding a tropical look to the landscape. Full sun. Well-drained soil. Hardiness zones 8–10.

  1. Corn Lily or False Hellebore (Veratrum viride and others)
Most corn lily species have similar pleated leaves. This one is Veratrum viride. Brewbooks,

Various Veratum species (V. viride, V. album, V. californicum, etc.) found throughout the Northern Hemisphere go under the name corn lily or false hellebore, although they look nothing like corn, lilies or hellebores. They are often recommended as toilet paper for their very large, soft, strangely pleated leaves. Mature specimens (they’re very slow to mature) produce a tall stalk of greenish to white or purple flowers, depending on the species.

Still, I’d personally hesitate to recommend this one, as all species are highly toxic. Now, I mean you have to eat them to poison yourself (a wipe is harmless and indeed, traditionally, the leaves have been used as a poultice, so external use is safe), but still… When nature calls and you’re in nature, fine, but maybe you shouldn’t bring these into the home for bathroom use. Partial shade. Hardiness zones: 3–7.

  1. Dombeya, Tropical Hydrangea or Wild Pink Pear (Dombeya burgessiae and others)
Dombeya (Dombeya burgessiae). Photo: Dinkum, Wikimedia Commons

Say you’re in the wilds of Africa and you suddenly feel an urgent need. What can you do? Well, you could turn to this large shrub (6–10 feet/2–3 m), best known for its large clusters of hanging pink flowers, rather like hydrangea blooms hung upside down, but also has large leaves of an appropriate texture for toilet paper use. It’s a popular toilet paper plant on its native continent, but an ornamental shrub elsewhere in the tropics and a greenhouse plant in colder climes. You could grow this in your bathroom … if it’s sunny enough and big enough. Bright light outdoors, full sun indoors. Average moisture. Hardiness zones 9 b-11.

  1. Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major)
Broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) grows pretty much everywhere. Photo:

This plant is a common weed worldwide and easily recognizable too, with its low rosettes of parallel-veined oval leaves and short upright green to brownish stalks of tiny flowers and seeds, thus a handy plant for travelers to get to know. You’ll find it in lawns, fields, vacant lots, gravel driveways and along roads. Note that broadleaf plantain is also a medicinal plant and it has painkilling and antiseptic properties, a bit like an aloe, nice to know if you’re suffering from hemorrhoids. Full sun. Well-drained to poor soils. Hardiness zones 3–9.

Curly dock (Rumex crispus). Photo:

Another worldwide weed with toilet paper uses is curly dock (Rumex crispus).

  1. Peppermint Pelargonium or Peppermint Geranium (Pelargonium tomentosum)
Peppermint Pelargonium (Pelargonium tomentosum). Photo:

A popular indoor or outdoor herb, depending on your climate, and it does indeed smell like peppermint. One could say it “cleans and refreshes”. Of course, there are dozens of other scented pelargoniums in a wide range of perfumes you could try, from lemon to pine and roses, but P. tomentosum has particularly soft leaves. Certainly easy enough to grow in a sunny bathroom! Full sun. Well-drained soil. Hardiness zones 9–11.

  1. Bushman’s Friend or Rangiora (Brachyglottis repanda)
Bushman’s friend (Brachyglottis repanda): a friend in need is a friend indeed! Photo:

I discovered this plant while in New Zealand where, apparently, no one brings toilet paper on camping trips since this large-leaved evergreen shrub or small tree grows so conveniently pretty much everywhere. Its leaf underside is as soft and white and downy as one would hope. Large sprays of tiny cream flowers appear in spring. Full sun to partial shade. Moist soil. Hardiness zones 8–11.

Test Before Use

Always test any toilet paper plant before lavatory use. The above plants are well known for this use and you might think that means they are safe, but some people are extra sensitive (I know someone who is highly allergic to scented pelargoniums, for example), so try rubbing a leaf on a small patch of your wrist. If no reaction occurs within 24 hours, you’re good to go.

More to Discover

There are other toilet paper plants all over the world many more than in this short article. And if you’re given to experimenting, you can probably find others in your own back yard. You’ll be looking for:

  • Fairly large leaves
  • Leaves that are quite resistant and don’t tear easily
  • Leaves with fuzzy surfaces, as they are usually more absorbent
  • Leaves that are soft to the touch, as they will also be soft to the butt
  • Leaves not only lacking irritating spines or hairs on their own surface, but even on stems you might have to handle.

So when nature calls, call on Mother Nature to supply the necessary wipe.

Many thanks to Isabelle Boulard for suggesting this article.

Watch the video: How to Grow Mullein From Seeds

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