In praise of Mullein

We have lots of Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) in the garden.  It self seeds, but the small seedlings are easily transplanted in the autumn to a more appropriate site.

All the Mullein plants do not have a happy life.  This year the caterpillars have ravaged quite a few.  Some were able to make a come back, others not.

The more voracious caterpillars continued to devour the plants right to their almost flowering buds.

The caterpillar becomes very large and fat and is easily recognised.

Swallow tail butterfly – Papilio machaon

Please see Malcolm’s comment below.  The caterpillars on the Mullein are from Mullein moths! I have had Swallow tails on my fennel previously and have confused these fat caterpillars although the colour is different.   

They are also a wonderful source of pollen for bees.  They have to get up early to get the most plentiful offerings of pollen.  By the afternoon there is not much action on the flowers.  But new flowers open each day.

It is not just honey bees that use the Mullein flowers to provide pollen other bees gather the bright orange pollen too.

You can see how tiny this bee is by comparing with the size of the stamens.

The flowers have been used to make herbal cough syrups but they have to be carefully gathered as the duvet on the leaves and stem can be irritating to the throat if mixed in with the flowers.  The infusions are also supposed to be beneficial for the throat and coughs but need  to be filtered carefully.  I have not tried gathering the flowers but leave them for the bees.

I was pleased to see that our neighbour has left a Molene standing proudly beside their drive.  Every little helps and in our dry, chalky soil it makes a very easy architectural plant.

 

18 thoughts on “In praise of Mullein

  1. Malcolm Gillham

    Hi Amelia,
    I think your caterpillars are Mullien Moths. They are as bright as Swallowtails, only the adult is a dull brown moth not a beautiful butterfly. But let’s not judge them on that – they’re also wonderful creatures. Swallowtails feed on umbellifers, and love fennel – so if you plant some of that I’m sure you will attract them.
    Cheers, Malcolm.

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    1. I’m in the Vaucluse and don’t seem to have mullein. I do have umbellifers, and fennel, but have never seen these caterpillars or moths — not that I’d be particular impressed by another brown moth …. the moths I really like are the hummingbird moths. I had a lot when I lived in a village in the haut languedoc, and I have a few here in the Vaucluse, but I believe their caterpillars feed on what we call in English bedstraw. I used to pull it out, but now leave it for them.
      bonnie near carpentras

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    2. Thanks Malcolm! I have had Swallow tails on my fennel which self seeds in with the vegetables. Now we have a giant fennel in the front garden so perhaps I will see them on that too this year. Must remember that it is Mullein moths that breed on the Mullein. Amelia

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    1. I’ve had the same thought but I have never seen them on it. They much prefer the Stachys, perhaps the Mullein fibres are more abrasive, you have to be careful if you are making infusions so there are none of the fibres in it. Amelia

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      1. As someone who doesn’t know much about bees, but likes them all very much, I had not known about the wool carder bees. We have what seems like acres of lamb’s ears, and sure enough, I just went out to look, and there are the wool carders (along with about 5 other species). Thanks to this blog, now I know!
        bonnie in provence

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          1. Great photos! She’s priceless, carrying around her wool bale! I will try to watch my bee houses, I get a lot of bees in them, but until now did not look out for the carder bees. Thanks so much!
            bonnie in provence

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  2. How odd to see that so far away. It is an invasively naturalized exotic species here, but some of us really like it. I do not cut it down at the farm unless it is in the way. I don’t mind is much there because it has no place to go. I mean, it will not spread into the forest above. It is therefore sort of contained.

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    1. Interesting that it has spread so far. I think it is a useful plant and above all it is not a nuisance in the garden. It does self seed but it is easily removed from inconvenient sites by a hefty pull on the stalk. Amelia

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