Beggar’s Blanket

It’s September and the flower spike of the Great mullein plant at our allotment has turned brown, making it the perfect time to collect some seed before they all scatter to the wind. I was checking to see whether they were ready and discovered that each of the little round clusters on the stem is absolutely jam-packed with tiny, dried seeds and if you give the plant a little shake they start fountaining out. So obviously I had to take some home because I can’t resist seeds that might possibly need saving.

Great mullein is one of our native wildflowers and the main foodplant for the Mullein moth which has a really first-rate looking caterpillar. This is a biennial plant so mine is in its second year which is the time when it produces its long, yellow flower spike before going to seed and dying.

I first came across it when it self-seeded last year on a corner of our plot producing a rosette of large silvery-grey, furry leaves which I thought were rather lovely. I left it alone to see what it would do and noticed it had come back again this spring.

Earlier in the year it produced its dramatically-long flower spike, totally justifying its place in the allotment as far as I was concerned. Now it’s at the end of its two year cycle and is going to town on seed production. The seeds, which are produced in abundance, are also very long-lived (up to 100 years apparently!) as a further insurance policy for the plant since this is the only means by which it can spread at the end of its short life.

Some online research also mentioned that Roman soldiers used to dip the plant stalks in grease to use them as torches and that Native Americans lined their shoes with the furry leaves to keep out the cold. There is also a link to witches. And finally the RHS has an impressively long list of poetic common names associated with it, many of which are self-explanatory such as beggar’s blanket, candlewick, feltwort, flannel leaf, hag’s taper (which gets the torches and witches reference in one), torch lily, lamb’s wool, velvet leaf and so on.

As usual there’s so much more to discover about a humble wildflower than you’d imagine. For now though, I’ve got to decide what to do with the thousands of seeds I’ve just collected, although it sounds like I’ve got the best part of a century to figure that out.