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Holtspur Bottom Butterfly Reserve

Dark Mullein

Dark Mullein (Verbascum nigrum) flower spike

Dark Mullein (Verbascum nigrum).

Dark Mullein is an attractive tall biennial or short-lived perennial. In the countryside it used to be common on road verges, field margins and other grassy places particularly in areas with calcareous (chalky) soils. It usually flowers from June to September.

As well as being the caterpillar food plant for the nationally scarce Striped Lychnis (Shargacucullia lychnitis) moth, the flowers are a good nectar source for a wide range of other insects, including bees. Many birds also eat the numerous small seeds the plant produces.

It is easy to grow from seed, though if sown directly into the ground, it does better where there has been some recent soil disturbance. Alternatively, it can be grown in pots or seed trays, and planted out once established. It does best in well-drained, sunny sites, without too much tall competing vegetation.

We would like to increase the number of Dark Mullein plants in the area surrounding our reserve at Holtspur Bottom, to try to support the local population of the Striped Lychnis moth. Although Striped Lychnis still breeds in the Holtspur Valley, we think the population may be in decline.

To be clear then, we would like people to grow Dark Mullein plants in the hope that the flower spikes will be eaten by caterpillars of a nationally scarce moth! Even if you don't manage to attract Striped Lychnis, there is another, similar-looking caterpillar of the Mullein moth (Cucullia verbasci) that you may attract!

If you could grow some Dark Mullein plants in your garden, on your allotment, in your School grounds, or anywhere else (you have permission), you would be helping us to halt the decline of this threatened moth. If you do find caterpillars on these plants, please leave them where they are. The caterpillars will "disappear" by the end of the summer (to pupate over winter before emerging as adult moths the following year). Once the plants have been eaten, and the caterpillars have gone, you can cut the flower spike off if you wish, or leave it as a source of seeds for small birds.

Although we are particularly keen to increase the number of plants in the area around Holtspur, it would also help to plant Dark Mullein if you live anywhere in West Sussex, Hampshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire or Oxfordshire, since there are populations of Striped Lychnis in all these areas.

If you live very close to our reserve, we may even be able to provide you with free seeds! Contact us for more information, either about growing Dark Mullein, or getting hold of seeds.

If you do plant Dark Mullein, we'd love to hear from you! In particular, if you contact us via Twitter or Facebook and let us know your postcode, we can see how far our project has reached!



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