Friday 28 October 2016

The perfect foil, lamb's ear adds a silver lining

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

Lamb's Ear
Lamb's Ear

Grown principally for its woolly leaves, lamb's ear makes a mat of new white silver leaves in spring and, in mid-summer, the flower spikes are produced. These are woolly too, with rounded whorls of flower buds giving a knotty effect up the flower spike, which reaches about knee-high.

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The true flowers are very small and open in sequence as a scattering of light purple florets, never to make much impact and hardly noticeable from a few metres away. Most people who grow the plant like the flower spikes, which are decorative and last for weeks. But others go to the trouble of cutting away all the flower heads, as they only want the silver carpet of leaves.

Lambs's ear is native to dry rocky slopes in the Near East from the Caucasus region south to Iran. It has a low ground-hugging growth habit to avoid wind damage and the silvery covering of the leaves is due to a dense coat of white hairs. Plants with hairy leaves are resistant to wind damage, drought and harsh sunshine. The hairy covering provides a screen and slows down the passage of air over the leaf surface.

It is so well adapted for growing in rocky soil in exposed places that when it is grown in gardens in rich fertile, relatively moist soil, its stems often become tall and soft and fall over in the wind. For this reason, it is best planted in well-drained soil and in full sunshine. It also tends to become mildewed if the soil is not well drained. Although it is a mountain plant, and therefore an alpine species, it is too vigorous for most rock gardens and it is usually planted at the front of a flower bed or border, or paved edge.

But it could be grown in a large rock garden, or on a low bank, and it looks great on areas laid to gravel. In favourable conditions of good drainage in the gravel surface, it often self-sows. The effect of the random placement of self-sown seedlings is very appealing and has an attractively natural appearance. Lamb's ear looks well in a time-tested combination with roses, especially old rose types. The silver foliage combines well with most colours, vivid or pastel, and looks especially well with pink, blue, white, yellow, orange or purple flowers nearby.

There are some named varieties, such as 'Silver Carpet which produces few, if any, flowers, and appeals to those who do not like the flowers. 'Big Ears' is a form with leaves larger than usual. 'Cotton Ball' also has large leaves and rounded cotton-boll like flower clusters on the stems. The plants are almost evergreen, or ever-silver, the larger leaves melting away in late autumn leaving the smaller ones.

Sunday Independent

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