Perennial Notes Excerpts


Verbascum x hybridum 'Southern Charm'
by Paula Refi

To seed, or not to seed: that is the question:
Whether 'tis cheaper in the pocketbook to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous plant prices,
Or to chance a sea of damping-off,
And by sowing grow them.

Like Hamlet, we perennial gardeners have our share of dilemmas, though rarely of tragic proportions. Well-grown specimens of blooming size do not come cheap, and growers must recoup the costs of production. Still, we look for ways to fill our beds and borders economically. Occasionally, that means growing some perennials from seed.

Verbascum x hybridum ‘Southern Charm’ is a summer-flowering perennial which, while available in pots, can be easily grown from seed. No need for tiresome stratification rituals and misting hocus-pocus. Simply sow the seed on sterile potting mix and keep moist until germination occurs. Verbascum 'Southern Charm' is a "Burpee Signature" offering, and plants will bloom the first year from seed if started in January under lights or in a greenhouse. Success entitles the grower to unlimited bragging rights.

'Southern Charm' is a refined relative of the familiar woolly mullein, Verbascum thapsus, whose prominent six-foot spikes tower above hairy, gray basal foliage. The native species grows along roadsides and in dry pastures. Verbascum 'Southern Charm' is more garden-worthy at thirty inches. Its flowering spikes carry one-inch florets in shades of cream, pale pink, apricot, or dusky lavender. Additionally, the flower spikes are branched and will continue to produce over many weeks into the summer if they are faithfully deadheaded. Like its roadside cousin, Verbascum 'Southern Charm' is unruffled by heat or drought and flourishes in poor soil.

The verbascums include more than 250 species, mostly Mediterranean in origin, some of which have naturalized throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Like many cultivated selections, Verbascum 'Southern Charm' is an F1 hybrid, so it will not grow true to type from seed. Although it is short-lived, replacing a few plants is not likely to break the bank.

Individual flowers have five petals, with an equal number of stamens. Because the stamens are woolly and raspberry-tinted, they are especially prominent against the pastel petals. The hairy, four-inch basal leaves are wedge-shaped at the base with round-toothed margins. Smaller leaves climb the stem. The plants require full sun and sharp drainage. Wet, cold soil in winter invariably proves fatal.

Denise Smith, of GardenSmith Greenhouse and Nursery in Jefferson, has offered seed-grown plants for several years. She confesses to being seduced by the photo of a bouquet of Verbascum 'Southern Charm' in the Burpee catalog. She almost regrets that her crop sells out each year, because there are none left to plant in her own garden. Some of her offspring, however, made a handsome show this year, beginning in May, at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. This perennial's brief life span ought not be considered a disadvantage, according to Denise. "Most people want the border to change slightly," she says. "This way, you get a chance to try something new."

The delicate spikes of Verbascum x hybridum 'Southern Charm' are magnified when displayed against coarser foliage, perhaps in combination with the burgundy-tinged Canna 'Wyoming' to echo the verbascum's showy stamens. Or create a more delicate composition by mingling it with frothy Kalimeris pinnatifida or gray-leaved Artemisia 'Powis Castle'. This hybrid mullein's delicate demeanor belies its tough constitution. Whether grown from seed or purchased in pots, it has proven to be a dependable summer bloomer.