Round Robin: Growing Purpurascens Alongside Lamb’s Ears

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Elisabeth Sheldon gives tips for successful gardening in New York.

LANSING, New York–Last year, for the first time in my gardening career, I was able to bring the purple-leaved Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’ through the winter. Actually, it was the deep, prolonged snow cover that made the difference. The result was that for the first time, I was able to enjoy a large spread of those wonderful pebbled, murky gray-plum leaves combined with the colors of other border plants: the dark dregs-of-wine seed heads on sturdy spikes of the hybrid alumroot (Heuchera ¥ pruhoniciana), the blue-green foliage of yellow horned poppy (Glaucium flavum), and the violet-purple blossoms on my favorite nepeta. But the best of all effects came in the fall when Rosa ‘Ballerina’, whose branches arch over the other plants and whose blossoms are ordinarily pale pink, acquired a hectic flush with the early frosts. The buds became deep cherry red and the small, clustered blossoms brightest pink: marvelous against the subtle restrained warm tones of the sage.

Last spring, I bought a new kind of lamb’s-ears–Stachys ‘Helene von Stein’. Pretty silly, I thought, buying lamb’s-ears when I’m already overrun with them, but the catalog described it as superior to other lamb’s-ears–and why not since it’s named after a countess who owns a nursery? When the little gray flannel rag arrived, I thought, “Foiled again!” but stuck it into a small empty space in the front of the border. After all, I’d paid for it, so I might as well give it a chance.

When a month or so had gone by, I noticed a splendid gray plant that was rather arrogantly beginning to shoulder its neighbors aside: Helene von Stein was already taking charge. Amazed, I set about moving it to a roomier spot where, by the end of summer, it had made of itself a most impressive spectacle. Imagine a great rosette of handsome felty gray leaves about 9 inches long, no more than 6 inches high but measuring 30 inches across. It wasn’t actually one rosette but several centers crammed together to form one large circle. The plant is indeed something new in lamb’s-ears and is quite stunning. However, its impact is such that I’m going to have to separate it into two or three pieces, locating them at strategic points so that they’ll balance one another in the border.

The catalog gave no species name, and I’m unable to find it in reference books. It differs in many ways from ordinary S. byzantina; for example, its blunt, lance-shaped leaves are not only larger but pebbled green-gray rather than furry gray-white. I suspect that it’s a cross between byzantina and some other species. I haven’t seen it flower yet, but its vendor says that its short-stemmed flowers “don’t spoil anything.”

Some lamb’s-ear relatives are also welcome in the herb garden. Betony (S. officinalis) has long been used to cure many ills, including headaches, hysteria, and nervousness. This native of Britain, Europe, and Algeria, with its crimped scalloped leaves and spikes of red-purple flowers, is fairly attractive, but S. macrantha ‘Superba’, which makes a stout, compact clump about a foot tall, is worth growing for its leaves alone; they’re crimped and scalloped like those of S. officinalis but bigger and better in every way. The flower stems, never more than 2 feet tall, rise straight up from the center of the clump of beautiful foliage, carrying whorls of rosy-violet blossoms. Superba could glamorize any herb garden.

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