Tuesday, June 26, 2012

White Mullein (Verbascum lychnitis)

Last Sunday I made a brief stop in the village of Beckington, Somerset. The posters were still advertising Beckington's Jubilee Day, June 23rd, with lots of Union Jack bunting. So I'd just missed it, but never mind, that isn't why I'd stopped by.

For such a small place, Beckington has more than its fair share of things to interest me. For example,  Beckington church houses the impressive tomb of Samuel Daniel, a poet that I think I like, though I never read him. As if Delia weren't distinction enough, the antiquarian John Aubrey (1626 - 97) tells us that Beckington was the first place in the UK to grow carrots. Aubrey's information can be dodgy, but it's always intriguing. And then there's the location, on top of a low eminence engirdled on the west side by the river Frome. This hill lies at the extreme southern end of the lower Jurassic plateau (it's essentially a continuation of the Cotswolds to the south of Bath). South of Beckington, the close approach of the Mendips (e.g. Nunney) to the Upper Greensand ridge (e.g. Longleat)  means that the Lower Jurassic scarp gets squeezed out for a while. So, in my own fancy, Beckington can be considered the southernmost Cotswold village. [This is an over-simplification. Frome town itself, the A361 ridge to Nunney Catch, and the road south to Bruton, are all on the Lower Oolite, which proceeds to wind its way through Sherborne and Crewkerne and eventually to the Dorset coast. All the same I think it's fair to say that this relatively narrow corridor never attains the character of a dominant land-mass like the Cotswold.]

But what I'd really come to inspect was Beckington's apparently vanishing colony of White Mullein (Verbascum lychnitis).

I've lived in or near Frome for most of 20 years, and it was almost as soon as I moved here, in the early 1990s, that I spied the White Mulleins growing on a broad verge at the edge of Beckington village (a couple of miles north of Frome). The front part of the verge is flat; behind it is a slope. In those days the colony was flourishing, with anything up to fifty plants.

White Mullein (Verbascum lychnitis) is generally a scarce and local plant in the UK, though it has some strongholds - I seem to recall that Glamorgan is one, and another (perhaps more unexpected) is Croydon. The species can also be found at the opposite end of Somerset, near Minehead; in this case, uniquely for Britain, in its yellow-flowered form. When R.G.B Roe published Flora of Somerset (1981),  the white-flowered form was not known anywhere within the county.  Roe noted an old isolated record from the village of Beckington (it was in 1791!), but he supposed that this was just one of those casual individuals that turn up in odd places and are then never seen again. A few years later, the Atlas Flora of Somerset (Paul Green, Ian Green, and Geraldine Crouch, 1997)  records the remarkable reappearance of V. lychnitis in its historic location.

Anyway, since 1992 or thereabouts I've been making intermittent drive-bys to keep an eye on the colony. And a few years ago I realized that it was in decline. By the early 2000s, driving past in July, I often saw only a single plant. These single plants were now confined to the slope, there were none in the larger flat area.

I wasn't sure why this decline had set in, though I supposed that the maturing of young trees on the bank (mainly goat willows) had a lot to do with it. I remembered too that in the glory days of the colony, the verge was regularly visited by traveller caravans and grazed by the ponies. Now I no longer saw them. Had the mowing pattern changed, I wondered?

When I stopped by to look more closely, I think in 2007, I found only the remains of the previous year's flowerer (these skeletons last a long time, and a lot of the fruits remain on them), plus a single first-year rosette, whom I'll name Margaret.

In 2008 I was back again, expecting Margaret to flower, but she didn't. Though the plants are biennials, it seems that if the conditions don't favour flowering then they can repeat the vegetative Year 1 more or less ad infinitum. Occasionally, so I've read, Year 2 (i.e. the year of flowering) may also be repeated, but that's something I've never witnessed. Normally, flowering is the end of the line.

For a brief period in 2008-9, I appointed myself a sort of unelected guardian of the colony who pleaded with councils and other bodies for various kinds of help. The only definite result I achieved (from Beckington Parish Council, in this case) was a slight increase in the area that was left unmown. It didn't do any good, so far as I could see: no mulleins ever emerged in this 5m curtain of flat ground, and in 2014 the mowing was once more extended to the base of the slope. Witnessing at first hand the sluggish incompetence of local government, or the well-meaning do-nothings who begged "to be kept informed" of my progress, was a sapping experience. Being a civic campaigner is no picnic. Nevertheless I'm not altogether sorry that I utterly failed to dynamize SCC into getting a grant to pay for scrub-cutting contractors. I had very mixed feelings about it. I don't like meddling with nature. And I am just as capable of being sentimental about a goat willow as about a white mullein.

2009: Margaret continued in rosette form. An overhanging willow bough was discreetly cut back.

2010: Margaret finally flowered and died - the first time that the flowers had been seen for four years.. Another rosette was discovered on the edge of the unmown area (we'll call him Maxie).

2011  Maxie flowered and died. No new rosettes seen - not by me, anyway. A visit by members of Somerset Rare Plants Group on 13th August 2011 apparently found two damaged rosettes in the mown area. 

2012 On a second visit (27/6/12) I found a new healthy rosette (named "Mutex") on the unmown bank, in a promisingly unshaded spot.

2013 Mutex flowered and died (I finally got some reasonable photos). I didn't find any new rosettes.

Two other significant things happened this year.  The first thing is that someone (presumably the parish council) decided to plant a few saplings on the mown part of the verge. Whether this is good news or bad news I'm not sure. It will cause a bit more shading, but it may also impede blanket mowing.

The second thing is that some travellers stopped by for a week, and that's definitely good news. This was in September, I think. I was able to confirm that their ponies avoided the White Mullein but cropped everything else (this is the same reason that Meadow Buttercup and Vervain do so well in horse-fields). Hopefully the ponies' hooves also cut up the soil a bit.

2014 One new rosette seen (Mildred).

They are pear trees. I was wrong in thinking they'd impede mowing. In fact the verge is now close-mown right back to the bank (my 2009 concession from Beckington Parish Council having been completely forgotten, once we stopped repairing our bamboo markers).

2015 Mildred flowered. She was in pretty much the same spot on the bank that Mutex was - the only unshaded spot. As with Mutex two years earlier, the main stem bent right over and draped itself down the bank, which makes it look even less photogenic.

I didn't get round to visiting Mildred until September 27th. There were lots of new flowers and buds, along with lots of mature fruits; this was a good example of the "second flush" that I mentioned earlier.

I also found three new rosettes, Mel, Mew and Miaou. Mel is about ten meters to the south of the aforementioned spot. Mew and Miaou are almost directly below it, and are so close together they're getting in each other's way.  All three are unusually small, especially Mew, and I don't expect them to flower next year. All three are on the edge of the mown area, which will be problematic unless I rope them off.  Nevertheless it's nice to see four plants at the same time. The site is more shaded than ever, so I wonder if this reflects the occasional manual placing of seeds that I've done over the past few years, or maybe the travellers' visit in 2013.

2016  I neglected to make any contact with Beckington PC, with the inevitable result that early close mowing has destroyed the three plants seen last year.  Rather depressing. I think this is the first year when I've seen neither rosettes nor mature plants.
2017  A very hot, dry spring and summer. Three rosettes appeared, one in the traditional "safe" position on the bank, the other two in highly vulnerable mown areas. We can't be bothered to make up any new names for them. We possibly can't be bothered to resurrect the bamboo canes either, but at least I'm thinking about it.


When I first saw the colony, the scene appeared to me peacefully immemorial.  Of course that was the common in-comer's illusion. Only two years previously, in 1989, the Beckington by-pass had opened to the east of the village. The road that the mulleins grow alongside, now purely a local route between Beckington and Frome, would up till then have been the A36, the main approach to Bath from the south. It must have been choked with traffic.

On Roe's evidence the white mulleins were unknown before 1981. But it's inconceivable that this vibrant colony, as I first saw it, could have passed unnoticed for very long,  I'm guessing the mulleins just existed for a long time as a seedbank and then something happened, not very long before I came to the area,  to kickstart long-dormant seeds into germination. All mulleins respond to soil disturbance, and maybe this disturbance occurred around the time that the Beckington by-pass was built. Perhaps scrub was cleared from the bank. But it remains a mystery: my sources (i.e. Laura) tell me that there weren't any obvious changes on this spot.

Despite my own limited success, I can be confident that the site still holds a healthy seedbank of V. lychnitis, patiently waiting for the right stimulus to re-emerge. It may take a century or two.


White Mullein doesn't photograph well. A close-up gives little idea of the plant's impressive size. But when you photograph the whole plant you can't see any detail in the inflorescence, which just looks greyish. Only a few flowers are in full bloom at any one time.  (The main flowering time is July-August, but the stems sometimes produce a scruffy secondary flush in October). The flowers appeal strongly to bees.

White Mullein from a distance. This was "Mutex", photographed on 28th August 2013. Clearly Mutex's main stem suffered a mishap sometime in the spring, so is bent over (the base of the plant is towards the top of the photo above, and towards the right of the photo below).

White Mullein raceme (above) and close-up of flowers (below)

Base of the flowering stem.

(Above) First-year rosette in shade, June 2008.

(Below) rosette damaged by mowing, June 2008.

(Above) Fruiting stem, September 2010.

(Below) Close-up of fruits.



At 3:51 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

I was confused in 2 places here, Michael: first by your mention of Delia in 3rd sentence of 2nd para.

Second by this phrase: "here, uniquely for Britain, in its yellow-flowered form". Do you mean yellow mullein, or a yellow-flowered form of white mullein?

I ask because there is no shortage of Yellow Mullein in my end of Buckinghamshire, together with Mullein Moth caterpillars, as I illustrated here: http://perpetual-lab.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/cornfields-near-amersham-old-town.html---if I have identified them correctly.

At 4:58 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

I've followed my old bad habit of posting something before I've finished writing it, and you may have caught it too early!

1. Delia = The (fictional?) object of Samuel Daniel's affections in his sonnets. Fancied by some to have been based on a fair charmer from the Beckington area.

2. I meant the rare yellow-flowered form of white mullein (V. lychnitis), which as its name suggests is more commonly white. The other mulleins, such as common or great mullein (V. thapsus) are all more or less yellow-flowered. I'd say the plant in your post looks like dark mullein (V. nigrum).


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