The Curious Peasant

at Peasant Publishing

Lost skills in cookery, craft, and culture.

Munching Mulleins

Returning to the garden after 10 days away I am astonished by the rate of growth in our absence. Beans are leaping up their poles, the courgettes will get their first picking tonight and the outdoor lettuces are filling nicely. The flower border is looking good if a bit chaotic.

Self sown mulleins (Verbascum pulverulentum) have overwintered and are now in full flower. One in particular is flowering spectacularly. Another has appeared right at the front of the border - not a good place for a statuesque 6 foot tall plant. However, as it is at the front it affords a fantastic view of the mullein moth caterpillars (Shargacucullia verbasci) that are munching their way through it.

Mullein moth caterpillar

The caterpillars are considered to be a pest by most gardeners, as they can completely defoliate a plant, and are killed either with pyrethrum or can be picked off by hand. I think they are beautiful and so don't kill them. Of course if I was growing my mulleins deliberately as a herbal medicine I might feel differently. But I am not and these lovely little creatures are thickly covering the stems of three of the mulleins. There must be over a hundred on each plant, all of different sizes, some as much as 2.5 cms long, and all leaving vast amounts of waste behind them.

Given the spectacular colouring of the caterpillars I expect they are poisonous, which is perhaps why the birds have left them alone, despite their being very exposed on the stems of the plants.

Considering how many caterpillars there are I am amazed that the moths themselves are rarely seen especially as they have a nearly 5 cm wingspan: I have never seen one.

Mullein moth caterpillar