Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Some Thoughts on a Biennial

Now, I know you all know that biennials complete their growth cycle within two years. But did you know that most biennials have a rosette of leaves and a taproot? The rosette is produced the first year along with a fleshy taproot...then it goes dormant for the winter. The taproot is a storage area for starches and sugars that the plant will utilize the following spring when it has a huge burst of energy, sending up a fabulous flower stalk. The parent plant withers and dies but not before producing loads of seeds to ensure that it will be around for a long time!

There are a few biennials in my garden. They are successful self sowers! Mullein, Rose Campion, Phacelia and Lunaria are among my favorites. The Phacelia and Lunaria are early spring bloomers and in a good year blanket areas with their sweet purple flowers.

The seeds of Lunaria are ripening now and will spread themselves about the garden.

I have never managed to collect the phacelia seeds in order to plant them in chosen spots around the garden. Phacelia seedling in the wildflower garden

So this spring, I ordered seeds* from Native Gardens, a Tennessee native plant nursery located in East Tennessee. Meredith collected the seeds, packaged them up and I broadcast them as soon as they arrived. Cross your fingers that they spread about and settle in. I love the flowers and posted about him earlier this year.

My hope is to have large swathes of color from both of these plants...they are easily removed if you don't like where they have seeded themselves.

The Rose Campion could never bloom and I would be happy. It's a cute little flower in rose pink that for some reason has reverted to white with a tiny hint of rose. Both nice colors. Don't get me wrong I love the flowers, but... it's the silver gray foliage that I admire. You can't have enough silver gray in a garden...


But, we need to talk about Common Woolly Mullein. A wonderful looking biennial with silvery sage coloring. This big, beautiful, woolly leaved plant is blooming right now. That's the problem. A serious problem according to some folks. Major flaws...

Common Woolly Mullein is considered a noxious weed in Tennessee and many other states. Here's what The Least Most Wanted site has to say!

Biology and Spread

"During the first summer after germination mullein produces a tap root and a rosette of leaves. During this vegetative stage, the rosette increases in size during the growing season until low temperatures arrest growth sometime during the autumn and winter. Beginning the next spring, second year plants bolt into maturity, flower, produce seed during the summer, and then die, completing the plant’s normal life cycle. Flowers mature from the base to the tip of the stalk. The length of the flowering period is a function of stalk height; longer stalks can continue to flower into early October. It is estimated that a single plant can produce 100,000-180,000 seeds which may remain viable for more than 100 years. The seeds are dispersed mechanically near the parent plant during the autumn and winter. Seeds at or near the surface are more likely to germinate."


Wow! That is a very successful naturalized plant! Or noxious weed!

On the other hand there are herbalists who love this big guy. The leaves, flowers and even the stems are harvestedto treat a number of respiratory ailments.

I didn't plant the mullein for its flower or its medicinal uses...it has always been the big woolly leaves that have captured my attention and interest...It has never gone to seed while in captivity at Clay and Limestone!
How Gail let this noxious weed be:

Last fall we reworked the hardscape and cut out the asphalt to extend this bed to the side door. We decided to make the bed cedar glade plant friendly. Baptisia, Grey Owl Juniper, Tennessee Coneflower, Salvia azurea and other natives were planted, along with a non native grass and the mullein. That's Verbascum thapsis with Juniperus virginiana, 'Gray Owl'.
The grass to the right of the mullein was moved there to soften the entrance. I found the woolly mullein in the front yard, a present from somewhere. I thought he would be a good foil for the juniper and the miscanthus. Doesn't he look good?

But, now we have this big yellow noxious weed, poised to take over the world! Well, my world!

He is really poised to take over empty fields...he loves a sunny, bare spot better than anything else....which may explain why there were only two small plants here. He found the only bare spots in the entire yard. I transplanted them to the sunny bed.

My promise:

I will remove the flowering stalk after I admire it for a few more days. It has an incredible presence. Goodness, it's already over 6 foot tall and growing! Do you suppose you can stop the biennial nature of a biennial by removing the flowering parts early in the second growing season? I cut back spent flowers on annuals to increase their longevity, would it work on a biennial? Can we neutralize him and keep him just a fluffy bunch of big woolly leaves? Lambs' Ear on steroids?

Just look at those leaves, they are absolutely perfect with the Gray Owl Juniper!

Sigh, it's hard having a conscience when you garden and love an invasive alien;-)

Gail

It is not enough to understand the natural world; the point is to defend and preserve it. Edward Abbey

*I also ordered Blue Eyed Mary seeds!

43 comments:

  1. You're up early! Or are you doing your pre-dating again?

    Have you tried white Lunaria? Ghostly at dusk. BTW, talking of dusk: we saw fire-flies last night. Wonderful.

    Back to reading.(jo)

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  2. Not easy to know when to pull the plug on semi-thugs, is it? So easy to admire for just a little too long, and then be stuck with the consequences.
    Do you have a picture of the rose campion flower? I'd love to see what exactly it is.

    Thanks for the biology lesson. Never realized they all have taproots.

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  3. Hi Gail, I think it is definitely worth a try to make him a eunuch. Our big boy wildflower here is the ironweed. He usually tops out at eight feet, I can't reach the flower heads! Somewhere it was written to cut the stem in half mid June to cause branching and shorter overall. It has worked, I am happy to report, side shoots are sticking out all over. But he is not invasive at all, in fact I have saved seed trying to make more of him, no go so far. I love the lunaria too, they come up under the pine trees where little else will grow. We have had one and one half inches of rain. Hallelujah.

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  4. anonymous Jo,

    I did schedule a post to catch those folks who are up earlier.

    The fireflies start around now and I haven't any white Lunaria although, I have seen it, but not at night!

    Gail

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  5. joco,

    It's those consequences! Unintended or known.

    Rose campion is another name for Lychnis coronaria...the single form is what I have in a magenta that is now white with just a hint of pink. Do you know that plant? I will look for a flower I cut it back as it had gone to seed and looks sort of messy.

    Gail

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  6. Frances,

    I love Ironweed and would grow it if I could find a spot that he was happy living in. He would look ridiculous in my tiny sunny bed....and it looks clownish enough! Does he bloom for you at the same time as Golden Rod...I always thought they would look good together, but Ironweed comes earlier here than Golden Rods.

    So glad for you and not at all jealous;-) We had some, enough that the shrubs perked up and now we are having this lovely cool weather...quite nice.

    Gail

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  7. I love the woolly mullein,too, and have thought about trying to grow it in my yard, but haven't tried yet and now I'm not sure I should.... but I love it!
    Ali in Maine

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  8. henboggle,

    The key seems to only have the first year plants! I wonder if there are other big woolly leaved plants that will have the rugged out door looks we like!

    Gail

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  9. Those things get really big! I've been passing by one on a road side that must be close to 5 feet tall by now. I have a couple in my lawn that I have been mowing over if you want them! ;) Too bad there isn't a less invasive one that looks the same it would be neat in the garden if it didn't take over.

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  10. Hi again Gail, the ironweed blooms in the fall, the goldenrod is still hanging around then too. The goldenrod has been a bit thuggish and is being pulled more in the spring. We leave some for the wildlife, but not in the beds. I do have a dwarf goldenrod, blooms earlier, it might be fireworks, lost tag. ;->

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  11. Dave,

    Yes I would love to find something that has that presence!

    While it hasn't taken over my yard...it has the ability to with seeds that live for a century!

    If you want to do an experiment...you could cut off the center section next spring as it starts to grow! I missed culling time...as it turns out both are second year plants!

    Let me know how the experiment goes!

    Gail

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  12. Frances,

    I wonder if we can order seeds or plants anywhere?

    I have a beautiful GoldenRod...it's ZigZag...lovely leaves and the stem zigs and zags! Seems to stay in a clump.

    gail

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  13. Great information. I have not had a problem with mullein taking over but will be taking your advice and cutting it down soon! The rosettes I just pull from where I don't want them. I did not know the seeds last forever in the ground. btw, I like the pairings with the grass and juniper.

    Frances, We here in middle Tennessee love iron weed and try to grow it-like Gail said. That is funny it is a bully there.

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  14. Mullein was planted a lot in Denver; in people's gardens and at the botanical garden. Here in Michigan it's considered a weed, growing along the highway. It hasn't reached invasive status and doesn't appear too much in people's gardens. I really like it, though! Rose campion are biennials?! My favorite bis are hollyhocks and foxglove, though I have trouble with the latter reseeding itself. The former rocks!
    ~ Monica

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  15. Tina,

    Too bad, it is a wonderful big old woolly plant...don't pull until the flower gets to seeding!

    gail

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  16. garden fairie,

    I have never been able to get hollyhocks or foxglove to grow here...after a lot of that rejection, I started focusing on natives that seem thrilled to be here! I have a fair share of non natives, too.

    Yes the campions are biennial in my garden..do you grow them?

    Gail

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  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  18. You make weeds look so pretty! I am guilty also as I like weeds. I just like anything that blooms!

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  19. Skeeter,

    I am the PR director of the weed world!

    Gail

    "A weed is only a misplaced plant."

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  20. On your sage advice, I just ripped my big guy out. He will go to the dump to be on the safe side.

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  21. The mullein does look cool, even if the seed stalk is a time bomb, Gail. I thought that cutting off the flowers on my Nandina so they didn't make berries would be okay, but our neighborhood is so full of Nandinas and birds that my beds are still full of seedlings anyway.

    Maybe the hundred-year-old seeds in the wilder parts of your yard will act as a plant nursery, providing first-year mulleins for transplant each spring so you could enjoy a guilt-free show ;-]

    Lychnis coronaria alba acted more like a short-lived perennial than a biennial in Illinois - don't know what it would do in TX.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

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  22. Gail, gardeners do have a lot of decisions to make don't they. Cut off seed pods? pull unwanted flowers out of areas we don't want them? spray for weeds? let nature take her own course? I guess in the end it is up to the individual and what they like or don't. If you like the mullein, and you evidently do-leave it and grow it to your heart's content!

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  23. I have long admired the foliage of Mullien. I'm so glad I never thought to bring it home. How does its foliage compare to Verbascum? The plants seem quite similar in flower.

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  24. haha, how funny you had a karl dean banner! although i'm mostly opposed to weeds, that plant is actually very pretty. i've learned to not mind the greenery as much anymore. i love flowers, but the green leaves on some of these plants are just as pretty.

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  25. Tina,

    What...mine is still in! I am going to admire it and then cut off the stalk and she what happens...I expect it will die but what the heck!

    Gail

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  26. dp,

    I use the old political signs for all kinds of things...like holding the grasses that want to flop over. Lots of loveliness with the greenery!

    gail

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  27. Annie,

    It is a time bomb! As long as birds find the seeds appealing, or the wind blows them about or ants carry them to their nests we will have invasives in our gardens. We could dig up every bush honeysuckle in one end of the yard and move to the other and have to start over again...like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. It would never end.

    I am hoping there are some first year plants out there waiting for me!

    Nandina...not my favorite...they just look all wrong in an American garden!

    The Lychnic is odd...it was a rosette for 2 years...lets see if it dies off this winter.

    Gail

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  28. MMD,

    That is an excellent question. The ornamental verbascum has textured leaves and is a bit on the sage green side with no fuzz! No steroidal lamb's ear about it. It also seems to have other flower colors than yellow!

    There has to be another substitute.


    Gail

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  29. Beckie,

    Yes, I thought of that...the thing is once it is past blooming it gets pretty ugly.

    It's a tough call and every gardener has to make them sometime or another.

    Gail

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  30. Thanks for all the helpful information on biennials. I always wondered why they were called that and how many often turn into perennials instead.

    One thing I've learned from reading so many gardening blogs is that not everyone has the same opinion of a plant. I can see why you like the mullein.

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  31. Hi Gail,
    Another great post, and on one of those slippery topics of biennials, perennials or annuals! I've come to believe it's just a matter of behavior. We've had supposed biennials become perennials (Angelica for one!) and supposed annuals act like biennials, so I just go with what they get up to, and count myself satisfied.

    I didn't know that Lunaria was a biennial, and have always been curious to try that ... another inspiration from your garden. If it grows well under pines, do you think it could handle a Blue Spruce? Ours just refuses to let anything do well there ... we've had some success with strawberries, but they went their way ... tried some Lupines, no luck. At this point we're talking about a good weeding, putting landscaping cloth down and covering it with river rock. Lunaria might do the trick? Would love to have that for dried flowers.

    That Mullein is very pretty, I agree, and we'd probably let one plant go and then cut the bloom stalk off before the seeds ripen. Reading your take on its invasiveness made me think of my stupid idea to plant Evening Primrose (Oenothera Missiouriensis) ... it followed the biennial path, then proceeded on the Great March across the rest of the garden and yard! Took me 3 years to get rid of it ... but it was pretty! And I learned our lesson, and whenever I find one now, it's dug up pronto.

    Talk about ripening time bombs, lol, we grow a few Datura meteloides 'Moonflower' every year from among the hundreds of volunteers that come up. I always vow that I'll get out there and cut the pods off while they're still green, but some inevitably sneak by! Gorgeous flowers, loved by Sphinx Moths, but a real garden buster if you're not careful! (And we're not always careful, lol.)

    The lesson is, I suppose, that it truly is up to the individual gardener. I like that. Your weed is my prize jewel. My prize jewel is your weed.

    BTW, if you're interested in Zebrina Mallow as well, I can send that with the Prairie Mallow. They ripen all through the summer, which is why we have so many!

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  32. Hi again Gail, It seems like my comment about the ironweed led you to believe it is a thug, quite the contrary, what I meant to convey is that he is so very huge. I have tried to get him to spread, helping with the seeds, but so far no luck. The daddy grows in the middle of the chain link fence, can't really move him, but an offspring was successfully raised inside our property and is a giant. I topped him and side shoots are already very long. I don't know what this will look like blooming, usually it is one tall stalk.

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  33. What a wonderful blog--I'm so glad I discovered it (through your comment to Dirt Therapy). I'm in Virginia, and some friends and I are starting a website (in the works) that will feature our native plants. I'm pretty sure we have a number of natives in common--certain the mullein, which grows wild on our property but has never been invasive (it's always a surprise where the next ones will show up). And I LOVE the combination of the mullein with the juniper--that's inspired!

    I do have a picture of white rose campion from my garden, but I'm a new blogger and don't know that we can send pictures in these comments--I'll try to get a picture posted on my blog today (cosmosgarden). I have mine growing against a purple heuchera.

    Anyway, wonderful to have found your site. Happy planting,

    Cosmo

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  34. I have tried to get this to grow in our garden with no luck. Can you believe it?? I love to see Downy Woodpeckers clinging to those tall flower stalks picking bugs and seeds out. The hummingbirds also like those flowers.

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  35. rose,

    We are a varied group aren't we! some of us like pink flowers, others blue and then there is a client of mine who hates yellow!

    I do like the mullein and I suspect many of s do but....!

    Gail

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  36. IVG,

    I think that you ought to try the Lunaria under the trees...they grow in pretty deep shade for me! Sign me up for all the seeds you want to send!
    Well, the two we talked about would be perfect!

    Lunaria is reliably biennial!

    gail

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  37. Frances,

    Thanks...you didn't say anything to make me think he was a thug...it was what I said about my garden being clown pants! Me not you! I'll do a post and you will see!

    gail

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  38. Cosmo,

    How wonderful and welcome to blogging. I think blogging with a friend is a great idea! Several blogs are set up like that and it's really neat to hear all the perspectives!

    Yes we have lots of natives in common...I haven't seen mullein over crowding anywhere...so it may be in agricultural areas not in our gardens.

    I will be by your site to see you.

    Gail

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  39. lisa,

    Isn't it funny that it is considered a weed by others! I think it is beautiful and stately and adds so much so the garden. Sigh!

    I can tell you that you need to move it when it is quite small before the tap root is established, put in a sunny spot and water it well until established...when it goes to seed... get the woodpecker shot, post it and then ship some seeds to me! Let's not tell anybody!

    I would love to see the woodpeckers hanging on the flower stalk! That's a great image!

    Gail

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  40. Hi, Gail--I've left a picture of my white rose campion on my blog (cosmos garden) for Joco. I tried to comment on Joco's site directly, which is gorgeous, but I couldn't figure out the comment page--maybe a problem with my browser this morning. Happy 4th!

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  41. Cosmo,

    Thanks, it is a cutie pie of a plant!

    gail

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