A good garden is full of color and blooms. A great garden incorporates different textures, fine, medium, and bold, weaving throughout the space. One plant that gives some variety of texture is the soft, attractive Lamb’s Ear, Stachys byzantine.
Lamb’s ear has warm, fuzzy, velvety foliage that resemble lamb’s ears. These leaves just beg to be stroked and are very popular with children, but deer and rabbits leave them alone. This perennial herbaceous plant does well in full sun to part shade and is an easy plant to grow with little requirements. It will tolerate drought, black walnut trees, and poor, even rocky, soils, but will do best in well-drained soil to prevent any chance of rot.
Native to the Middle East (Turkey, Armenia, and Iran) and a member of the mint family, this 6-8 inch plant can be aggressive in rich soil. It spreads by creeping stems that grow outward, forming a dense mat. It is very easy to pull out when control when necessary. Nevertheless, this plant makes an outstanding addition as a rambling edging or border to a garden.
The Chicago Botanical Garden ran a multi-year study of 22 taxa of Stachys to evaluate their ornamental traits, disease and pest resistance, cultural adaptability, and winter hardiness. The plants were grown side by side with minimal maintenance, similar to what would be encountered in a home landscape. Most plants scored a 4 out of 5 for excellence. The conclusion was: “Lamb’s ears … are stalwart perennials with outstanding ornamental features for a variety of gardens.”
Most Lamb’s ear plants will flower in late spring to early summer, although they are grown for the interesting foliage and the flowers are considered insignificant. It is advisable to deadhead, or remove, the flowers because the plants do self-seed prolifically. In addition, the removal of the flowers keeps the foliage in better shape and more vigorous.
Later in the season the foliage may begin to look tattered and brown. A bit of clean-up will quickly solve that problem and new leaves will quickly fill in. After several years, the plants may develop a hole in the center of the patch. This is a tell-tale sign that the plants need to be divided. Simply dig it up, divide into clumps and replant.
Lamb’s ear is hardy to Zone 4 and will stay green unless the winter is especially harsh. The most significant problem with this plant is rot and damage due to excess moisture, including high humidity. Avoid any overhead watering, and make sure the soil is well-drained. Adding mulch around the plants to keep soil moisture from coming in direct contact with the leaves is helpful. Powdery mildew and slug damage can also be an issue. Again, keeping moisture down will work toward solving both problems.
The silvery-green foliage of Lamb’s ear pairs wonderfully with perennial plants like roses, iris, Russian sage, allium, and most purple plants. It can also be used in container gardens. One of the more popular cultivars is ‘Helen von Stein’ also called ‘Big Ears’, which sends up very few flower stems, is slightly larger, and tolerates summer humidity better. ‘Silver Carpet’ rarely blooms and has silvery-gray, very thick wooly foliage. ‘Cotton Boll’ has small, fluffy, cotton-ball-like flowers along the stiff stems over gray-green leaves.
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