Vanity Fair once described Bunny Mellon as the “high priestess of pruning and pleaching” for her devotion to gardening and personal love for pruning. While Bunny had an affinity for picking wildflowers and celebrated vegetable gardens, she loved pretty weeds as well.
Verbascum thapsus, a biennial plant, was once used as an herbal treatment for coughs, congestion, chest colds, bronchitis, and inflammation. For most of the year, the huge, furry leaves flourish under Bunny’s gazebo, stationed next to her display greenhouse. She felt that weeds were friendly, and often added to the beauty of her home, hence why the weed mullein was allowed to sprout between the stones. Its common name may have come from the Celtic term meaning yellow.
If you’ve seen mullein, it’s likely been in disturbed areas of roadways, fields, and river banks, where the seeds usually germinate. Yet here at Oak Spring, their attractive foliage and flowers make mullein a part of the estate’s aesthetic. The plant can grow up to two meters tall and hold a dense spike of yellow flowers. The weed is native to Europe, northern Africa, and Asia, and was introduced in the Americas and Australia as a piscicide over 200 years ago.
Cultivars of Verbascum—Gainsborough, Letitia and Pink Domino—have gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit. Seeds maintain their germinative powers for decades, up to a hundred years, according to some studies. The plant is even edible: not only can you add mullein’s leaves to a salad, but the plant is still brewed in tea as an herbal remedy for respiratory ailments. The velvet plant is still lauded as a useful weed, despite its original planting as fish poison.
Barbara Leaming’s biography on the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a dear friend of Bunny’s, refers to Mrs. Mellon’s attention to minutiae, including “the weeds she contrived to grow precisely the right height between carefully irregular patro stonework.” According to Bunny, weeds were an essential and effortless part of any garden.
In the same way Bunny hung seemingly ordinary but extremely personal paintings next to masterpieces by artists such as Van Gogh, Bunny found it necessary to have a carefully pruned garden and weeds growing between paving stones. In her words, “Nothing should stand out. It all should give the feeling of calm.”