The mullein moth, caterpillar and flower

David Chapman / 25 August 2015 ( 19 August 2020 )

David Chapman introduces the beautiful mullein flower, and the moth larvae you may spot on it.



I'm a really keen wildlife gardener and I must confess that my motivation is partly selfish.

It gives me great satisfaction to wander around our garden and smallholding looking for new flowers and animals.

One of my favourite flowers is that of the mullein, or verbascum. In fact, I love mullein leaves as much as I do its flowers, my wildflower book describes them as being covered in a "thick white woolly down" and after rain these leaves become a maze of beautiful water droplets.

Mullein isn't a small, shy retiring plant, it's big and bold, in a small garden just one plant might be enough but we are lucky enough to have space for more. Nevertheless I have found only two plants this year in my wildlife garden, mullein is quick to take advantage of disturbed ground so maybe I need to get the hoe out more often.

Of our two mulleins I noticed, last week, that one was coming into flower and looking in robust good health, the other was looking a bit ragged and torn. I looked a bit closer and found several caterpillars (technically larvae when talking about moths rather than butterflies) of a moth known aptly as the mullein moth, Shargacucullia verbasci.

Life cycle of the mullein moth

Mullein moth caterpillars

Mullein moths are on the wing in April and May, when they also lay their eggs which take about 10 days to hatch. The bright yellow, black and white caterpillars, or larvae, are easier to spot and are seen busily feeding in July, not just on mullein but they will also eat the leaves of figwort (the family of flowers to which mullein belongs) and buddleia. They can grow up to 50mm in length and are fully grown after about 30 days.

Mullein moth pupa

Mullein moths pupate underground in a cocoon with a hard exterior made of soil and small stones. It can take up to two years for them to emerge from their cocoons.

Adult mullein moths

Once the moths emerge they are rarely seen as they fly and night, so they are most often seen in their caterpillar form. Adults will be on the wing from May to July.

How to encourage mullein moths into your garden

To encourage mulleins into your garden, read our guides to growing verbascum and buddleja. Alternatively, if you’re looking to attract some feathered friends, be sure to check out our guide on attracting wild birds into your garden.

For more great gardening ideas, be sure to visit our gardening section.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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