Verbascum Olympicum, sharpen


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?’


Garden in bloom, July 2011 - Verbascum Olympicum, Helenium, Potentilla

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.

verbascum Olympicum at gt dixter