Along the walkway around the classroom and in other places around the grounds of Hilltop Gardens and Nature Center, the evergreen, lamb’s-ear, also known as wooly lamb’s ear or Donkey’s Ears, grows prolifically! A staple groundcover for many gardeners, Stachys byzantina is a species of flowering plant from the Labiatae family. Native to the countries of Armenia, Turkey, and Iran, it grows in most temperate climates and has naturalized in some areas.
This perennial plant is known for its wide, rounded, soft, fuzzy leaves with a silvery, grayish-green color, used as an ornamental in themed “silver plant” gardens or as a ground cover. Its short, thick foliage grows in dense bunches and will eventually blanket an area. In late spring or early summer, some varieties send up to 18-inch-tall spikes with lavender blossoms whose light fragrance is a favorite of pollinators, especially bees. A favorite in children’s gardens, kids love to touch the soft, velvety leaves.
Lamb’s-ear prefers dry conditions in full or partial sun but will still grow in more shaded areas. It is hardy in Zones 4-8. It is quite easy to grow from cuttings in well-drained soil. Too much water or even a hard rain can make it mushy and loose. The plant spreads by new roots touching the soil and through self-seeding. Deadheading the plants can help a gardener retain control over spreading. Used to dry, arid climates, no additional fertilizer is needed to help it thrive.
The plant can become invasive if ignored, especially in warmer climates, and may be difficult to eradicate. Keeping dead or damaged leaves plucked and stems deadheaded can keep the growth looking in top shape clear into late fall. Divide the plants every two to four years by digging and removing entire plants. These can be cut into smaller clumps and transplanted to a new location.
It is a wonderful addition to rock gardens or planted as border. Plant it around other plants with bright blooms. The contrast will bring out bloom color and create a restful atmosphere. The rosettes are beautiful additions to summer floral arrangements. With care, rosettes may be dried by hanging upside down in a cool, dry place for use in fall wreaths and door hangings.
If you wish to cultivate a specific species, start plants from seed eight to ten weeks prior to your area’s frost-free date. They can take as long as a month to germinate, so be patient! Some cultivars, like “Cotton Boll” are sterile and will not produce flower stems. Another interesting cultivar, “Primrose Heron” has yellow leaves in the spring and pink flowers. “Striped Phantom” sports variegated leaves. “Silver Carpet” is a cultivar that has a stunning silvery appearance under moonlight!
Folk medicine used the plant to heal wounds. On the battlefield it was used to stop blood flow and speed coagulation. It has antibacterial, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties. It became a bandage for cuts or bruises. Native peoples used it to line footwear, and it has even served as toilet paper!