Sunday 25 August 2019

In The Garden: Lovely lamb's ear creates a silver lining all year round

LAMB’S EAR: It softens the edges of borders and beds
LAMB’S EAR: It softens the edges of borders and beds

Gerry Daly

Just now this lovely little plant is in full flower and looking quietly resplendent. It is not like a camellia or a rhododendron that catches the eye, but it is a valuable garden plant nonetheless.

Silvery grey lamb's ear is usually seen at the front of a border or bed, often skirting a path. It looks very well in such a position because it spreads nicely out over the path, softening its hard edge and making a garden path blend with the garden. Lamb's ear is also used on rockeries, although it is perhaps too big for a small rockery. But it looks very good on a large rock garden and especially when it is used to trail down a bank, with or without rocks nearby.

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Lamb's ear - Stachys byzantina, to give it its correct botanical name - used to be called Stachys lanata, the second part of the name meaning woolly, which was very appropriate, but that has now been changed (though many people still use the old name). The new name, 'byzantina', refers to its origins in the Near East from the Caucasus to Iran.

This plant came originally from rocky places and it is specially adapted to grow in dry places as a result. It has a low ground-hugging growth habit, which is typical of mountain plants that have to stand up to a lot of exposure to wind.

Its leaf and stem surfaces are covered with woolly hair - giving rise to its common name obviously, but also pointing to its origins, because plants with hairy leaves are resistant to wind, drought and sunshine. The hairy covering protects the delicate leaf surface from the elements and reduces moisture loss.

Not surprisingly, the names of varieties are often associated with woolly ears, including 'Silver Carpet', 'Big Ears' and 'Fuzzy Wuzzy'.

So taking a cue from its structure and knowing the habitat that it is adapted for, it is obvious that it is completely at home in well-drained soil on a rockery or a bank, or perhaps tucked in at a path edge that might get dry in warm weather.

It only fails when planted in ground with too much moisture, the stems rotting at ground level. It may do well to start with, but winter wetness eventually causes problems.

It has no pest problems because the hairy coat is a fine defence.

Just now, the flowers have appeared. These are knee-high spires of wool-covered stems dotted with small pale-purple flowers, relatively tall compared to the low rosettes. Lots of flower spikes are produced and combine to good effect.

A nice way to display this plant is to have several good-sized clumps. From a distance, each clump picks up the other.

Even in winter, the effect of the silvery leaves is very useful and a fine backdrop in summer for pink, yellow, blue or white flowers, or for dark flowers.

If it is really happy in a garden, it will self-sow and make naturalistic swathes of silver.

Sunday Independent

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