Great Mullein, Shepherd’s Club, Velvet Weed (Verbascum thapsus)

Great Mullein, Shepherd’s Club, Velvet Weed (Verbascum thapsus), a broad-leaved Eurasian biennial herb flowering in its second season.

The plant was introduced to Melbourne no later than 1855 (courtesy the seed packets of frequent culprits J. and J. Rule) as a medicinal and cottage garden ornamental. By this time the leaves of Great Mullein had also been fingered by Tasmanian sheep managers as a tobacco alternative for use in the wash treatment of various ungulate ailments (Geelong Advertiser 21/08/1851); the plant was conceivably introduced at a vernacular level to sheep stations across the Australian southeast as a consequence. Subsequent to this, it was also widely promoted from the 1870s-1900s as a remedy for diarrhea, consumption (ie. TB) and pneumonias.

Informally, Great Mullein was reported to be naturalised in various parts of NSW by the 1870s if not earlier, and had likely already escaped cultivation in Victoria and Tasmania by that time; the first formal records were made on Flinders Island in 1875, in NSW in 1884, and in East Gippsland in 1887. By the 1920s, Great Mullein was proclaimed in a number of shires and municipalities under Victoria’s Thistle Act. Although also surely naturalised in Melbourne and vicinity in the 19th century, the plant appears to have been ignored by urban and suburban botanists, with formal records surprisingly only made in Geelong in 1982 and North Melbourne in 2017.

On overrun rural properties, the plant offers the spectre of thousands of grey velvet cabbages to haunt the dreams of cottage gardeners. However, with this oversized rosette Mullein is an obvious target for pulling or glypho on properties with even the hint of regular maintenance. Consequently, in the metropolitan the species thrives primarily on the most thoroughly neglected and hidden infrastructural territories, the margins where it can survive unseen and unacknowledged all the way to its year two flowering.

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Search for information about Verbascum thapsus in the Flora of Victoria

View information and occurrences of Verbascum thapsus on the Atlas of Living Australia

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