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Lovable Lamb's Ears Plant

This carefree, cuddly Stachys species is always a comfort

| October/November 1995

  • Lamb’s-ears are the most touchable plants in the herb garden.
    Photograph by Lauren Springer
  • Lamb’s-ears, violas, and golden hops star in this quiet composition.
    Photograph by Rob Proctor
  • Helene von Stein (left) and Silver Carpet lamb’s-ears grow companionably in this garden.
    Photograph by Lauren Springer
  • The vivid pink blooms of S. macrantha earn this underused plant a welcome in almost any garden.
    Photograph by Marcia Tatroe
  • Stachys coccinea
    Photograph by Marcia Tatroe
  • nivea
    Photograph by Marcia Tatroe
  • Wood betony
    Photograph by Marcia Tatroe

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.

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