Herb Profile: The Many Varieties of Lady's Mantle

A gracious guest in any garden

| December/January 1998

  • Lady’s-mantle creates this memorable ­garden scene and a peaceful place for ­reflection.
    Photograph by Rita Buchanan
  • Guarding the garden gate is a mass of blooming lady’s-mantle.
    Photograph by Jerry Pavia
  • Lady’s-mantle stars in the landscape. Its supporting cast includes ‘Blue Hill’ salvia behind it.
    Photograph by Jerry Pavia
  • Lady’s-mantle wears its early-morning dewdrops like jewels.
    Photograph by Andy Van Hevelingen
  • Frothy lady’s-mantle adds a note of levity to a stern clipped boxwood in its ­majestic urn.
    Photograph by Rob Proctor
  • Alchemilla alpina
    Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.

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.)

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