It is always a pleasant surprise when the odd mullein plant (Verbascum thapsus) turns up in my garden every now and then. The majority of my garden has the feel of a shady woodland so not your typical growing conditions for mullein . Fortunately my veggie patch has a good deal of sun and is well drained so I was happy to spot the unmistakable broad grey furry leaves of a baby mullein plant right at the front of my veg bed.
Rosette of leaves of mullein plant before flowering
I watched it grow over the next few weeks, the basal rosette of leaves getting larger and larger by the day almost. One day i noticed a few holes in the leaves and on closer inspection, a handful of black, yellow and white spotty/striped caterpillars. An internet search confirmed mullein moth caterpillar (Cucullia verbasci).
Should I pick them off and offer them to the chickens? Should I just leave them to it ? I hadn’t planted this mullein so it was a happy accident that it was in my garden in the first place. In the end I couldn’t bring myself to destroy them, I figured it wasn’t my place to play God on this one so I left them to it.
Usual single stemmed mullein flower stalk
Over the next few weeks, I watched with interest and some dismay as every single one of the big broad furry leaves were reduced to tattered strips and the centrally emerging flower stalk was annihilated. All eaten and covered in caterpillar shit. I assumed that was the end for the mullein plant but consoled myself with the thought that at least a new generation of mullein moths would be born into the world in the next few years.
Then something really lovely started to happen. Gradually, new flower stalks began bursting out from all around the old eaten flower stalk. The growth culminated with a huge multi pronged candelabra of flower stalks around 5 feet tall, each stalk plastered with mullein flowers.
Multi-stalked flowering mullein after caterpillar feasting
Every couple of days I was able to harvest mullein flowers. Each time I picked a batch, I could see masses of new flower buds behind them just waiting for their chance to bloom. Mullein is such a generous plant anyway, giving medicinal gifts in the form of flowers, leaves and even roots. And of course, masses of seeds for re-planting.
One of many mullein flower harvests
Altogether, I have harvested around 25g of flowers from one plant, all thanks to the ‘pest’ called the mullein moth. Over the next few years the caterpillars will emerge from their below ground slumber as mullein moths. I look forward to their future caterpillar offspring and this time will welcome them with open arms!
Mullein flowers all dried out and ready for use
Find out more about the medicinal uses of mullein flowers (and leaves and root) here.