Lamb’s ears, Stachys byzantina, is a perennial herb that is an excellent choice for children’s or sensory gardens. Be forewarned, it will not tolerate over-watering or persistently wet soil at all. The truly remarkable quality of lamb’s ears is how it feels to the touch, like the softest fur, or perhaps velvet.
Due to its undeniable charm, you see it for sale in almost every garden center, but lamb’s ears is not so easy to grow. I’ve seen a lot more poorly grown lamb’s ear than I have happy, healthy plants.
I’m not trying to scare anyone away from growing lamb’s ears. I’m trying to impress the reader with how important proper growing conditions are for success with this lovely groundcover.
Growing lamb’s ears
The secret to growing lamb’s ears is to grow it like a xeric or Mediterranean plant. Keep the water off of it and make sure the soil is well-drained. Stachys byzantina is native to the Middle East and prefers fast-draining soils.
It is drought tolerant and not picky about soil quality. There is rarely as sorry a sight in the garden as watching lamb’s ears seemingly melt before your eyes due to a combination of wet soils, hot weather, and high humidity.
You will often read advice recommending that mulching under the leaves will help prevent disease, most likely by attempting to create a barrier between the plant and soil pathogens. In my experience, this is a fairly hopeless strategy and I’m not sure what it accomplishes. Mulch is excellent in almost all situations but it will generally not save a plant that is suffering from too much water at the roots or on the leaves. A paper towel used to blot away excess water from the furry leaves would accomplish more.
Please do not blot leaves with a paper towel.
Ideally, water will wet the roots of Stachys and then drain swiftly away. Orchids are similar in this respect. Like Camassia, lamb’s ears can be planted near black walnuts, which produce a toxin that can poison nearby plants. Another interesting plant from the Stachys genus is betony, Stachys officinalis. Betony also does not like overly wet soils by the way.
Full sun is recommended, but I prefer shade in late afternoon.
Bright light can wash out Stachys byzantina’s color, whereas it starts to glow softly in late afternoon shade. If you do grow it in some shade it is even more important to ensure soils do not stay wet. Leaves from this species that stay wet for long periods can help introduce disease.
The leaves can trap moisture, a haven for leaf spot in humid climates.
It is hardy zones 4-8. The problem in hotter zones is the combination of heat and humidity, a far greater threat than cold. Plants that die back in winter will often wake up with new foliage the following spring.
It looks best in massed plantings as a ground cover, at least five or seven and preferably more. Plant it 12″-18″ apart and let it grow together via the creeping stems that root as they go along. It only grows a foot tall so it is best towards the front of the border or maybe in the distance along a path to draw one’s eye.
If leaves get tattered or brown at the edges as summer or winter progresses, simply pinch them off to tidy up the plant.
Stachys byzantina flowers in summer, although I do not find the light blue flower stalks particularly interesting. The flowers can best be described as inoffensive. Most years I cut the flowers off. Some years I don’t bother.