What’s soft, fuzzy, and silvery grey-green? The answer is one of the best herbaceous perennial secrets around for your garden; lamb’s ears. If you are looking for texture and diversity for your garden, and need a low-growing (6-8 inches tall), ornamental edge plant, this might be “it.”
The plant originated in the Middle East, near Turkey and Iran. Other authorities assert that it is a native to the Caucasus Mountains in Europe. Lamb’s ear got its name from the shape and feel of the ovate leaves. It is a member of the Lamiaceae family, related to mint.
Stachys byzantina is no longer considered a medical herb, although for centuries it was used as a wound dressing. The plant does have antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties and is absorbent. Because of these properties, it’s also called “wooly woundwort.” I was intrigued that a herb could be “taken off the list” of helpful plants after so many years of service. Why?
I did find one reference from the 1800s, to lamb’s ear being included with golden rod as a wound dressing. Mostly, I found website after website of the exact same information about lamb’s ear, evidently copied from each other! None of them had anything new to say about the plant. I turned to my herb books and texts.
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Having known the mature plant both in my garden and in the woods, I was very surprised to find two-inch potted specimens for sale at the local garden center. More special was the garden center employee telling me that a video on how to plant lamb’s ear was available online. I tried very hard not to laugh. However, I did go home and watch it.
Lamb’s ear has a reputation for both good and ill. The dense, matted rosettes of leaves beg to be touched. Often planted in children’s gardens, lamb’s ear can take a lot of abuse and still survive. Some farmers might think of lamb’s ears as a baa’ed plant. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)
However, the plant does very well if kept within perameters or borders and not allowed to spread. It is easy to grow as long as it has well drained soil. Once planted, lamb’s ear requires very little maintenance and tolerates a variety of weather and soil conditions. It’s a hardy, sturdy, plant and may require thinning or redirection every few years. The plant is propagated by seed or by dividing the root ball.
Grown in pots, or as part of a container planting, lamb’s ear does very well. It is considered an evergreen and makes a great companion plant or filler to brightly colored blossoms. It makes a good companion for roses. It also makes a good protection barrier against deer and rabbits. The beasts just don’t enjoy the taste. Lamb’s ear also has the destinction of being one of the plants that grows well near black walnut trees.
Lamb’s ear flowers in late spring and early summer. The pale pink, violet or lavender flower spikes rise from six to 10 inches above the woolly base. The stalks look great in flower arrangements. The flowers are considered sessile. This means the stalk is firmly attached to the plant base.
After blooming on the plant, it’s a good idea to clip off the dead flower heads. The flowers attract bees and other pollinators, and smells a bit like pineapple. Just before flowering, the stems of the lamb’s ear elongate, and sometimes the plant may begin to look “weedy” or “leggy.” It can be cut back after flowering, if you wish. If you do not enjoy this stage of the plant, look for cultivars that do not flower.
Lamb’s ear is loosely related to Betony (both are Stachys), and is sometimes called woolly betony. Besides the sopping up of blood and use as a dressing, lamb’s ear has also been used as a poultice and has analgesic properties.
It was used either alone, or to help hold in other herbs like comfrey. It was often used in the aftermath of bee or wasp stings, and reduces the swelling from both.
It was used for centuries as a “women’s comfort” for hemorrhoids, menstrual flow, birthing, for nervous tension, and as a skin aid. It’s easy to see that with the invention of Tylenol, gauze, feminine hygiene products, cotton packing, and make up removal pads, the knowledge and use of lamb’s ear for this purpose kind of went out the window. However, now you know you have a natural substitute if everything goes wrong and supplies are not available.
Lamb’s ear has been used as a natural dye for wool. Boiling the leaves in hot water and then adding a mordant, brings out a fabulous, creamy, yellowish beige. Using the bracts (flower spike) instead of the leaves, a light mauve can be attained.
Powdery mildew is one of the plant’s few attackers. The fungus causes white spots on the leaves. Pick off and destroy all affected foliage. Treat the plant with a fungicide, neem oil, or garlic spray. Slugs and earwigs can attack and eat holes in the leaves. These pests can be controlled with traps. Hot, humid weather can rot the leaves. The weather isn’t preventable. If this happens, just peel the dead leaves off.
Now to the use of the plant for food. The truth is that not many people eat it, even if it is edible. The leaves by themselves have a bland, fruity taste and smell and have been described as both apple and pineapple-like.
The leaves traditionally have been used in cooking from the West Indies. A lovely tea can be made from the leaves as well, tasting a bit like chamomile. I also have a mole verde recipe that calls for small lamb’s ear leaves. When harvesting for food, only choose small, healthy leaves.
There is a market for dried lamb’s ear plants, to be used in floral arrangements, wreaths, and potpourris.
Whether you love or hate it, seems that this overlooked, creeping perennial plant, it is not a baa’ed choice for your garden, or for your emergency stash.
Master Gardener Sydney J. Tanner nurtures her 10 children as well as plants, in Colfax.