Good-natured Stachys byzantina charms gardeners and nongardeners alike with its soft-felted foliage. Few children can resist the temptation to pull off a leaf to carry around and caress like a well-worn flannel blanket. Adults may be more furtive,
only stopping now and then to feel the downy leaves when weeding or walking through the garden. These sweet, old-fashioned plants seem like a curious blend between plant and animal. Images of soft fur are reflected in their many folk names: lamb’s-ears, rabbit’s-ears, and donkey’s-ears have all been used to describe the plant’s resemblance to a long-eared creature. Herbalists may know this garden favorite as woundwort or woolly betony. It is sometimes sold as S. lanata.
Few silver-foliaged plants are grown more widely than lamb’s-ears. Thumb through any garden design book to witness their role in the creation of many a beautiful garden. Even the sophisticated gardener who has long since tossed out other beginner’s plants still values this silver-gray beauty and the impact it has on other colors in the garden.
Some years back, lamb’s-ears were among the first plants to find a place in my new Colorado garden. A generous neighbor gave them to me as a “garden-warming” gift. Since then, they’ve traveled up and down the block, passed from one household to the next. Garden visitors who compliment the lamb’s-ears never go away empty-handed. There are always extras to share because these plants are very prolific.
Lamb’s-ears originated in Turkey and western Asia, where they are still found growing on rocky sites. While most often grown as an ornamental, this plant has other uses as well. The leaves may be harvested just before the flowers appear, dried, then steeped in boiling water to make a refreshing tea. They may also be eaten raw or steamed as greens. I sampled a leaf raw, and it didn’t taste bad, but I’m not sure I’d want my salads to be so fuzzy. The name woundwort refers to the traditional use of the leaves as a dressing to stop bleeding. Today, children find these soft bandages a real comfort for coping with the indignities of small cuts and scrapes.
Where lamb’s-ears grow well, they are absolutely indispensable in the flower border. Their tiny mauve flowers are carried in whorls on spikes that shoot 2 to 3 feet above the basal rosette in late spring or early summer. The entire stalk may be cut and used in fresh arrangements or dried upright in a vase for longer life as an everlasting. Although the blossoms are delicate and sweet in themselves, lamb’s-ears are most valued for their outstanding foliage. Silver has a reflective quality that brightens and enhances pastels while quieting and taming stronger colors. Whether woven into the middle of the border or used as an edging, lamb’s-ears always furnish texture and contrast.
Lamb’s-ears fit with just about any plant combination in the garden. Placed at the foot of old roses, the silver clumps hide the sometimes bare lower canes. Large purple spheres of Allium giganteum, flat-topped, bright pink yarrow, starry cottage pinks, and filigreed Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ together with lamb’s-ears would fairly shimmer on a hot, late spring afternoon. In the herb garden, lamb’s-ears’ relatively large foliage provides an interesting foil to that of their small-leaved Mediterranean counterparts rue, rosemary, purple sage, and thyme.
Lamb’s-ears will stand up to assault from quite boisterous companions, a useful trait if you’ve planted it near the likes of Oriental poppies, obedient plant, yarrow, and others with similar territorial aspirations. Not outrightly invasive, clumps increase rapidly but from close to the crown. Occasional thinning at the edges is sufficient to keep them in bounds and is also the easiest means of propagation. Alternatively, or if the center dies out, the whole clump may be dug up and pulled apart, the healthiest rooted rosettes replanted, and the old, woody stems sent to the compost pile. The more fertile the soil, the more frequently division will be required. A few self-sown seedlings may pop up here and there in the garden but never so many as to be a nuisance.
In cold-winter areas such as mine, where temperatures in some years drop to -30°F or below, lamb’s-ears become increasingly dormant with each passing hard frost. It’s safest to leave the somewhat untidy mass of dead leaves in place to protect the crown during the coldest months. When the first new leaves emerge in spring, a vigorous raking tidies things up and makes room for the new growth. Although lamb’s-ears are ever-silver where winters are warmer, they will still benefit from a raking in late winter. Like other Mediterranean plants, they tolerate winter wetness poorly and may sulk and rot unless drainage is very good. Heavy rains in any season or too much fertilizer may cause an unsightly flopping of the whole plant.
In Colorado’s cold winter/dry summer climate, lamb’s-ears are cheerfully unparticular about cultural conditions, growing equally well in sun or shade, surviving the heaviest clay soils with or without irrigation. Where summers are hot and muggy, siting requires greater care. Unless positioned in full sun with sharply draining soil and good air circulation, lamb’s-ears are likely to melt into a sodden gray mass. They are thus probably not a good choice for gardens in the lower southern or Gulf states. For areas at the edges of this region, the cultivar Helene von Stein (sometimes sold as Big Ears) is reportedly more forgiving of extreme heat and humidity than the species.
It perplexes me why anyone would dislike the flowers of lamb’s-ears, but a few garden writers routinely recommend their removal rather than allowing them to “spoil the effect”. For those so inclined, there is a less labor-intensive option. Silver Carpet is a shy-blooming cultivar that sends up only an occasional flower spike. Allowed to grow into a dense mat, Silver Carpet would make an ideal ground cover.
Exploring the Genus
Lamb’s-ears are the most popular member of the genus Stachys, but there are many other species that shouldn’t be overlooked. This large genus in the mint family (Lamiaceae) contains about 300 members around the world. All have the square stems typical of mints and varying degrees of woolliness. Most possess especially attractive foliage, some that share the familiar dense silver felt of lamb’s-ears and others that are dark green, heavily veined, and pebbled. The flowers tend to be modest but with subtle patterns and intricate shadings. Some blossoms have the delicate appearance of overlapping watercolor washes. Others are ornamented with contrasting dots and lines. The individual blossoms are usually borne in tiers along a spike or occasionally singly.
Native to the Caucasus, large-flowered S. macrantha (sometimes offered as S. grandiflora) is one of the showiest of the group. Clumps of crinkled, dark green, somewhat heart-shaped leaves send up stout stalks, topped in early summer by dense clusters of bright pink tubular flowers. Various color forms are available in tones of pink through purple as well as white. Although it does well in full sun in cooler parts of the country, S. macrantha wilts in the heat and intense sunlight of my Colorado garden. I suspect that it would be happier in a more sheltered woodland environment or in afternoon shade. While hardly a prima donna, this plant appreciates a little pampering, growing best in humus-enriched soil that doesn’t dry out too rapidly. Besides being useful in borders (oxeye daisies and blue peach-leaved bellflowers would be lovely nearby), S. macrantha makes an excellent cut flower and attracts bees to the garden.
Wood betony (S. officinalis), a Eurasian species, looks much like lamb’s-ears but is taller and has smaller flowers. Grown in medicinal gardens and monasteries as well as collected from hedgerows in Britain and the Continent, wood betony has been used since ancient times as a cure-all. It was particularly esteemed for treating headache, giddiness, dizziness, and hearing difficulties. Although wood betony was usually taken as a tea made from the dried foliage, a snuff made from the dried leaves induced sneezing and cleared the sinuses, and the juice or bruised leaves could be applied externally to stop bleeding and to cleanse wounds. Banckes Herbal advised, “Take any betony . . . and you shall not be drunk that day.” Handy, had it worked! This all-purpose herb was also planted in graveyards to repel evil spells. (I must admit that I’ve never come across a single evil spirit wandering around my garden.)
Practical applications aside, wood betony is an attractive addition to the ornamental garden. Its carefree and informal grace make it a natural in meadows and wild gardens. The foliage is medium green with a ruffled edge of overlapping scallops, soft and slightly furry. When in bloom, its form is quite erect, the compact whorls of reddish purple, pink, or white flowers rising stiffly above the foliage rosettes. Wood betony is fully hardy in my garden and has been increasing steadily by division and self-sown seedlings for several years. It blooms in midsummer, a month later than S. macrantha.
Gardeners in southern states may have better luck with S. coccinea, the scarlet hedge nettle. This native of New Mexico, Arizona, west Texas, and Mexico is found growing along stream banks, preferring more moisture and heat than most of its relatives. As its name implies, the triangular leaves resemble those of stinging nettles, but they lack the bite. When crushed, they have a minty fragrance with citrus undertones. Red flowers with white lines in the throats bloom nonstop from early summer until the first hard frost if deadheaded regularly. Hummingbirds are the plant’s primary pollinators. My garden is on the brink of scarlet hedge nettles’ hardiness range; it will survive -20°F with adequate snow cover or a heavy mulch. In colder climates, cuttings taken and wintered over in a greenhouse will bloom the following summer.
I grow an odd assortment of other members of the Stachys clan, many of which are seldom available for purchase as plants, although an increasing number are offered in specialty seed catalogs. Most are not difficult to start from seed. Fortunately for me, Denver Botanic Gardens has introduced quite a number of these to my area.
Stachys species names are in a bit of a muddle, so it is with a little hesitation that I pass them along, but these are the names that were attached to my plants when I acquired them. S. heraclea has a grayish green nettlelike leaf. Mauve flowers with delicate cream and burgundy tracings start in early summer and continue into the fall with conscientious deadheading. Alternating pairs of hairy triangular leaves climb to the top of the spike. This species self-sows almost to the point of being a pest, but long-blooming perennials are in such great demand that it’s never difficult for me to find new homes for the seedlings. Most years, S. heraclea is only a foot or so tall, but this year’s rainy spring inspired mine to double in size. I suspect that a milder climate would have the same effect.
Softer even than that of lamb’s-ears is the foliage of S. persica. It has long, quiet green triangular leaves that feel like soft suede. It’s quite tall and floppy, with lavender flowers.
My four favorites are extremely drought tolerant, a real asset in my semiarid region (15 inches average annual precipitation). Diminutive S. thirkei, from the Balkan Peninsula, is almost identical to lamb’s-ears, but the flower stalk is only 18 inches tall. It forms dense mats of small rosettes that are completely intolerant of winter wet. It should grow erect; flopping indicates too much summer water or too rich a soil. This plant thrives on benign neglect.
Another beauty that demands well-drained, dry soil is S. inflata, a native of Turkey and Iran. Flowers of palest lavender with burgundy lines and a white throat contrast sweetly with small leaves so silver that they appear to be almost white. It grows best in unirrigated western gardens.
S. chrysantha is tiny–less than a foot tall in bloom. The relatively large flowers are a subdued yellow touched with maroon dots. They are tucked closely against woolly white mats that have just a hint of lime green. This species looks attractive planted between flagstones.
Creamy white tubular blossoms of the Syrian species S. nivea are the largest of the clan, measuring 2 inches long. They rise in loose, waxy clusters above dark green straplike leaves that are white on the undersides. S. nivea, often confused with the Caucasian species S. discolor, is a perfect addition to the rock garden or the dry Mediterranean border.
After I found myself smitten by stachyses, I started hunting for them in local nurseries, mail-order seed and plant catalogs, and plant society seed exchanges and sales. Although I’ve mentioned only a few of the best, not one that I’ve tried has been a disappointment. The quiet elegance and graceful simplicity of these carefree plants more than compensate for their lack of flashiness and glamour.
• Alplains, 32315 Pine Crest Ct., Kiowa, CO 80117. Catalog $1. Seeds of Stachys byzantina, S. inflata, S. nivea, S. thirkei.
• Arrowhead Alpines, PO Box 875, Fowlerville, MI 48836. Catalog free. Plants and seeds of S. byzantina, S. macrantha, S. nivea; seeds of S. chrysantha, S. m. ‘Superba’, S. officinalis.
• Busse Gardens, 5873 Oliver Ave. SW, Cokato, MN. 55321. Catalog $2. Plants of S. byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’, S. b. ‘Helene von Stein’, S. macrantha ‘Superba’.
• A High Country Garden, 2902 Rufina St., Santa Fe, NM 87505-2929. Catalog free. Plants of S. coccinea.
Note: Seeds for seventeen species of Stachys were listed in the North American Rock Garden Society’s 1994-95 Seed List and were available for purchase by members of the society. For membership information, write Jacques Mommens, Executive Secretary, PO?Box 67, Millwood, NY 10546.
Marcia Tatroe is an adventurous gardener in Aurora, Colorado, a writer, lecturer, and garden designer specializing in xeriscape.