Lamb's Ears, Nature's Most Touchable Plant
Planning a children’s garden or one for the senses? Try Stachys byzantina, lamb’s ears, aka woolly betony, so called because of its relationship with S. macrantha (big betony) and S. officinalis (wood betony.) No matter what the name, lamb's ears are plants people love to touch.
All stachys are part of the mint family, having square stems, opposite leaves and a spreading habit. However, lamb’s ears do not spread like culinary mint. Leaves are oval and pointed with soft felt like a lamb's.
Lamb’s ears are perennial in Zones 4-8 of the U.S. Like many silvery plants, they are extremely drought tolerant. Perfect for rock gardens, or a dry spot of average soil in a garden bed, lamb’s ears are easy plants to grow. The leaves quickly form a soft mat of rosettes. They were also once used as bandages and are reportedly helpful in relieving the pain of bee stings. Evergreen in warm climates, leaves shrivel and die in colder winters. However, the plant doesn’t die unless planted in a boggy area. Remove desiccated foliage as new leaves emerge in spring.
Lamb’s ears make an attractive edging for beds and are wonderful planted where people can walk and touch their foliage. Silvery leaves look great with bright purple or pink flowers, and also blend with light pink blooms. They hide the knobby and unattractive canes of roses and soften other shrubs.
The cultivar ‘Big Ears’ aka ‘Helen von Stein’ is noteworthy because of its larger leaves and the lack of flowers. It is more resistant to disease and performs well in hot southern gardens.
The Chicago Botanic Garden performed a comparative study of different cultivated stachys where they tested several cultivars including ’Big Ears’, ’Wave Hill’, ’Cotton Boll’, ‘Primrose Heron’ and ‘Silver Carpet.’ They noted that ‘Cotton Boll’ did indeed have flower clusters resembling cotton.
S. byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’ and ‘Big Ears’ are considered nonflowering forms which don’t need deadheading. However, ‘Big Ears’ does sometimes form a few flower spikes in my garden. I remove these to encourage more leaves.
Growing lamb’s ears is easy. Here are seven steps:
- Plant four-inch pots 18 to 24 inches apart in partial shade to full sun. Keep watered while plants get established.
- Grow in well-drained soil enriched with compost, but no additional fertilizer. Lamb’s ears do not like rich soil. Evenly moist to dry soil is fine.
- Don’t water plants with overhead sprinklers and prune for overcrowding in summer to prevent rot. Where summers are humid, plants will rot out in the center.
- Divide in spring every three to four years if needed, or simply remove the dead centers in foliage to maintain clumps.
- Remove flowers before they set seed to help leaves recover staying soft and green.
- Remove rotted or dried foliage to prevent disease from spreading.
- Sow bugs are attracted to diseased foliage. Removing decayed leaves throughout the growing season will help discourage them.
Of all the child-friendly plants in the garden, children seem most attracted to the soft woolly foliage of lamb’s ears. Grow it as a short and attractive border for a garden devoted to children or your own sense of touch. With easy care silvery foliage, this perennial is a must.