Growing Lamb’s Ear in North Carolina from WPTF’s “Weekend Gardener” magazine. (Photo Credit: Kristine Bellino, WPTF/Curtis Media Group)
Known more for its foliage than for its flowers, relatives of Stachys byzantina, known commonly as “Lamb’s Ear,” are favorites in North Carolina. Hardy in well-aerated soil in USDA Zones four through ten, most are grown for the silvery leaves covered in tiny filaments that look like hair. The leaves, as their name suggests, feel like the ears of baby sheep.
Although they are much less common, among the hundreds of varieties of Stachys there are indeed several that also produce beautiful flowers. One of these is Stachys lavandulifolia, or “Pink Cotton Lamb’s Ear,” which produces fuzzy flowers. The leaves of lavandulifolia are also used to make tea.
The plant is named in Caroli Linnaei’s Species Plantarum, published in 1753. Stachys seeds dating from between five and 23 million years ago were found in the early part of the 20th century as documented in “A botanical analysis of a late-Pleistocene and Holocene profile in the Rhine Delta” by F. Florschütz (Yelp – Gld.) and F.P. Jonker (Utrecht).”
Members of the Stachys genus – and its relatives mint, betony, bishop’s wort, and hedgenettle – are considered medicinal. Popular use of them extends to Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, and the Caucasus region from which they originated. Your author has witnessed the leaves used in place of a Band-Aid by a more experienced gardener who did not want to waste sunlight by running inside just to cover a blister (well-earned pruning roses in Saratoga’s Yaddo Gardens). Oil from the leaves has also been used to heal asthma, and serve as an astringent, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory salve. According to Greg Susla with the National Museum of Civil War Medicine (civilwarmed.org “The Pry House Medicinal Garden – 2018 Expansion” October 3, 2018), “Lamb’s Ear is a true Civil War plant because it has been used for centuries as a wound dressing on the battlefield.” The lore, then, is deserved.
In North Carolina, the plant is usually considered perennial, as it can survive an icy winter and bountifully emerge in the spring. It does best in partial to full sun and, if happy, it is a quickly-multiplying plant that can be used for groundcover. Although the USDA does not consider it to be invasive, it can quickly spread. It is for this reason that The North Carolina Arboretum uses them in container gardens from time to time, according to Senior Director for Mission Deliveries Clara Curtis, who has grown Stachys in her personal garden for decades.
Curtis points out the educational value of Lamb’s Ear. “It is a great tactile plant,” she says, “and a great plant to introduce to children.” Though not a child, my own memory of being introduced to Lamb’s Ear at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens in 1987 prompted me to begin growing it as soon as I had a fertile patch of land. It has since become one of my favorite plants to gift.
Because it loves aerated soil and room to breathe, Stachys byzantina is an excellent edging, especially near rock substrate. It is, Curtis notes, also “…a really nice pairing in a rose garden and in a garden that you are you are planning to enjoy in the evening because of the way the foliage shows in low light.”
The plants could look quite unappealing in the winter. Gardeners should make certain to remove any yellow, floppy, leaves which appear to have mold or fungal infections. Although it is usually a highly disease-resistant plant, sitting in icy pools of water can eventually take its toll on even healthy specimens.
Stachys byzantina flower stems range from two to twelve inches tall on average, although other cultivars have grown to more than 30 inches tall. The leaves vary in size as well. There is not much guesswork with a name like the “Big Ears” variety, also known as “Countess Helen von Stein,” (also Helene von Stein) whose leaf “ears” regularly reach lengths of a foot or more.
This respectable garden wonder is also believed to be deer and rabbit resistant. Personal experience would permit your author to attest to this fact, as a family of bunnies nests in an area bordered by Stachys, and the leaves are never harmed. In fact, kittens have been found sleeping beneath them. If the delight of helping nurture nature is at all appealing, then the gardener will only be delighted by the addition of Stachys to the summer landscape.