Imagine a garden plant that captures the sparkle of early-morning dewdrops, cupping them for passing insects to sip. Picture a composition of elegant blue-green ruffles arranged in tidy clumps, then top it with a delicate, long-lasting froth of tiny, exquisite flowers in a chartreuse that brightens every nearby flower. And make this plant a rock-hardy perennial with a history and a future. That’s lady’s-mantle, a true herb-garden classic.
Lady’s-mantle (Alchemilla mollis) is also known as dewcup for the way the soft hairs on its pleated leaves catch raindrops and dew. Medieval alchemists collected the drops, believing them to have magical powers. The generic name means “little magical one,” not only because of the droplets’ purported mystical properties but also because the plant was once esteemed for its healing powers—in fact, it was considered powerful enough to restore lost virginity. Early Christians dedicated it to the Virgin Mary because the lobes of the leaves were thought to resemble the scalloped edges of her cloak.
Beauty and Virtue
Easy and adaptable, tough and vigorous, this member of the rose family has very nice manners and belongs in every herb garden. Hardy in Zones 3 through 9, it may grow to a height and spread of 32 inches. The leaves have deep folds and unfurl in rosettes. The loose, airy sprays look like greenish yellow cotton candy and last all summer.
Lady’s mantle is tolerant and undemanding, but it grows best in rich, moist, well-drained soil in full sun or part shade (give it afternoon shade in the South). Cut the flower stalks back to the base after blooming to bring on a flush of fresh new leaves in the fall.
You can grow lady’s mantle from seed, but there are easier ways of propagating it. You can dig up offsets of established plants in spring or early fall. Plant them 2 feet apart; they’ll soon fill in. Plants self-sow freely if not deadheaded, but not in a weedy way, not this lady. Just pull out unwanted seedlings or dig them up and set them where you’d like them.
This versatile plant also can be used as a ground cover or planted along the banks of streams or seeping pools. Its more diminutive relatives are well suited to rock gardens and hanging baskets. (See the box on page 00 for especially compact species.)
Rob Proctor and David Macke, who garden in Denver, Colorado, use
lady’s mantle lavishly. They splash its gold and chartreuse
throughout their gardens as foils to bring out the best in the
other plants. They pair lady’s mantle with purples, blues and
brilliant reds and magentas, teaming it with catnips, hardy
geraniums and bellflowers. A neatly trimmed boxwood planted in a
pedestal urn is surrounded by the froth of blooming lady’s mantles.
Other lady’s mantles join ferns and hostas in a damp, slightly
sunken garden. At the front of a bed next to tiny-leaved lemon
thyme, lady’s mantle’s foliage appears huge and tropical.
Herb Companion columnist Rita Buchanan gives lady’s mantle a starring role in a grand scene in her Winsted, Connecticut, landscape. Along a pathway next to the pond in her front yard, a bench faces out across the water to the house and gardens in the distance. Behind and surrounding it is a solid hedge of lady’s-mantle, its chartreuse flowers spectacular by late June and its colors echoed by yellow-flowered loosestrife covering every square inch of the ground leading to the water’s edge.
Rita’s planting is a lesson in how one plant, attractive on its own, can be glorious when multiplied, massed and mirrored.
Kathleen Halloran is a former editor of The Herb Companion.