Genus: Alchemilla vulgaris
• Hardy perennial
Hailed by gardeners as a wonderful ornamental, the round, scalloped, green or grayish leaves of lady’s-mantle sparkle with dew drops, and its long-lasting, airy flowers delight the eye. Yet this plant is more than a beauty to its beholders. It has a long history of use as a medicinal herb and was once thought to have magical properties.
The name Alchemilla comes from the word “alchemy.” Alchemists of old held this plant in high esteem, believing that the dew on the leaves might hold the secret to eternal youth or to turning base metals into gold.
Lady’s-mantle was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the shape of the leaf suggesting a pleated medieval lady’s cloak. Not everyone thought the leaf looked like a cloak, though. Lion’s foot, bear’s foot and nine hooks, other names to which this herb has answered, allude to the lobes on the leaves, and another moniker, dewcup, refers to the tendency of the leaves to collect water droplets. (Droplets that appear at noon in dry weather are exuded from the leaves by the process of guttation.) Great sanicle, the old name popular in 16th-century herbalist John Gerard’s time, referred to the herb’s alleged healing powers.
Lady's Mantle: The Plant
Lady’s-mantle is native to Europe but has become naturalized in north-eastern North America. It will grow in Zones 3 to 8 in sun or shade. At least partial shade is recommended in warm climates. Plants grow 18 inches tall from a stout rootstock “full of thready strings,” says Gerard. The leaves evergreen in mild climates, have seven to 11 shallowly toothed lobes and may be 6 inches across. The leaves that arise from the crown are each borne on a long, narrow stalk; smaller leaves sparsely clasp the flower stalk.
Clusters of 1/8-inch greenish-yellow flowers held above the leaves appear in June and July. The individual flowers are insignificant and, because they have no petals, don’t even hint at their family relationship to garden roses.
The genus Alchemilla contains some 200 species native to the north-temperate zone. The nomenclature is very confused, in part because these plants can produce fertile seeds without pollination. Thus, all the offspring of a given plant are identical to the parent, and every minor difference between populations is perpetuated. Some taxonomists have considered these slight variations to be species while others have not. A. vulgaris, the species commonly listed in herb catalogs, may be the same as, or just very similar to, the A. mollis and A. anthochlora found in general perennial catalogs. A lady’s-mantle for the rock garden, A. alpina (and/or A. conjuncta, A. pubescens, A. glaucescens), is a smaller plant having five-lobed leaves with a silvery edge and underside. The tiny annual parsley pierts (A. microcarpa and A. arvensis) have little ornamental value but are of historical interest as old-time remedies for kidney stones and urinary infections. The peculiar name derives from both its appearance and its reputation: Fan-shaped leaves resemble those of parsley, and “piert” is short for “piercestone,” that is, the kidney stone.
Growing Lady's Mantle
Lady’s-mantle self-sows and seedlings come true. Fresh seed germinates readily. Sow seeds in well-drained potting medium, 1/8 inch deep. They may take three to four weeks to germinate at 60 to 70 degrees. If you have room for only one plant, you may prefer to buy one or get a division from a friend.
To increase your stock of lady’s-mantle plants, separate pieces of the crown with their attached roots in spring or fall and plant them in moist, fertile soil. If plants seem to be spreading too rapidly, hold off on the fertilizer. Lady’s-mantle will tolerate a fairly dry soil, though it grows best with ample moisture.
Lady’s-mantle also may be grown in a container, outdoors or in. Place it in a cool, deep pot and fertilize it occasionally with a high-nitrogen fertilizer. Keep the soil damp in spring and summer, drier in winter.
In cooler climates, lady’s-mantle is quite trouble-free. In humid areas, however, water remaining on the leaves and crown in summer promotes fungal diseases. Good air circulation, thorough garden sanitation and a sand mulch are preventive measures worth trying. Applications of a fungicide may be necessary in difficult cases.
As an ornamental, lady’s-mantle is superb in the front of the perennial border or as a ground cover in front of old roses, rhododendrons, azaleas, ferns or pines. For a ground cover, set divisions 8 to 10 inches apart. Lady’s-mantle’s large, more or less smooth leaves contrast nicely with the fuzzy foliage of lamb’s-ears or horehound, the vivid green leaves of fern-leaf tansy or the small, neat foliage of hyssop. The flowers harmonize well with those of lavender, garden sage, hyssop, anise hyssop or nasturtiums. Another approach is to display the herb in hanging baskets. Follow the directions above for growing the plants in containers.
Using Lady's Mantle
The reputation of lady’s-mantle as a medicinal herb has some scientific basis: Tannins give the root and dried leaves an astringent property. Nevertheless, claims for its efficacy were extreme. Gerard noted, “It stoppeth bleeding, and also the overmuch flowing of the natural sickness.” Lady’s-mantle also was prescribed to calm hysterics, relieve vomiting, lighten freckles and even restore lost virginity. The herb, though not fragrant, was sometimes placed under the pillow to promote sleep.
The blossoms are excellent in both fresh and dried arrangements, and the pressed leaves may be used to decorate notepaper or bookmarks.
Lady’s-mantle has been used very little in the kitchen. The young leaves can be added to tossed salads as a bitter accent. In northern England at Easter time, leaves of lady’s-mantle, bistort (Polygonum bistorat) and lady’s-thumb (Persicaria vulgaris) were mixed with oatmeal and barley and boiled in a bag to make an herb pudding known as Easter mangiant.