Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina)

Donkey's Ears, Lamb's Ear, Lamb's-ears, Lamb's wool, Wooly Betony

Lamb’s ear leaves make a pretty ground cover and it is grown for its thick, fuzzy, silvery foliage that creates a softly textured mat in the garden. Lamb’s ear is a fast-spreading perennial that does best in sunny areas, thrives in poor, slightly acidic soil, and as a drought-tolerant perennial, it is also a good candidate for xeriscaping and rock gardens.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Stachys byzantina (syn. S. lanata), the lamb’s-ear (lamb’s ear) or woolly hedgenettle, is a species of flowering plant in the mint family Lamiaceae, native to Armenia, Iran, and Turkey. It is cultivated throughout much of the temperate world as an ornamental plant, and is naturalised in some locations as an escapee from gardens. Plants are very often found under the synonym Stachys lanata or Stachys olympica.

Lamb’s-ears are herbaceous perennials, usually densely covered with gray or silver-white, silky-lanate hairs. They are named lamb’s ears because of the leaves’ curved shape and white, soft, fur-like hair coating. Flowering stems are erect, often branched, and tend to be 4-angled, growing 40–80 cm tall.

The leaves are thick and somewhat wrinkled, densely covered on both sides with gray-silver colored, silky-lanate hairs; the undersides are more silver-white in color than the top surfaces. The leaves are arranged oppositely on the stems and 5 to 10 cm long. The leaf petioles are semiamplexicaul (the bases wrapping halfway around the stem) with the basal leaves having blades oblong-elliptic in shape, measuring 10 cm long and 2.5 cm wide (though variation exists in cultivated forms). The leaf margins are crenulate but covered with dense hairs, the leaf apexes attenuate, gradually narrowing to a rounded point.

The flowering spikes are 10–22 cm long, producing verticillas that each have many flowers and are crowded together over most of the length on the spike-like stem. The leaves produced on the flowering stems are greatly reduced in size and subsessile, the lower ones slightly longer than the interscholastic and the upper ones shorter than the verticillasters. The leaf bracteoles are linear to linear-lanceolate in shape and 6 mm long.

The flowers have no pedicels (sessile) and the calyx is tubular-campanulate in shape, being slightly curved and 1.2 cm long. The calyx is glabrous except for the inside surface of the teeth, having 10 veins with the accessory veins inconspicuous. The 2–3 mm long calyx teeth are ovate-triangular in shape and are subequal or the posterior teeth larger, with rigid apices. The corollas have some darker purple tinted veins inside; they are 1.2 cm long with silky-lanate hairs but bases that are glabrous. 

The corolla tubes are about 6 mm long with the upper lip ovate in shape with entire margins; the lower lips are subpatent with the middle lobe broadly ovate in shape, lateral lobes oblong. The stamen filaments are densely villainous from the base to the middle. The styles are exerted much past the corolla. There are immature nutlets without hairs, brown in color and oblong in shape.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

Grow lamb’s ears in full sun in cooler climates. In desert areas and high-heat locations, it can profit from partial shade. Excessive heat and dry conditions will cause the leaves to scorch.

Temperature and Humidity

Lamb’s ear grows well throughout its hardiness range, zones 4a to 9a, withstanding a range of temperatures. It does, however, dislike humid conditions, which can make lamb’s ear susceptible to fungal leaf diseases. Because it spreads so readily, you will usually have plenty of new plants to replace the old, rotted plants. This herbaceous plant is evergreen in mild climates. In colder areas, the leaves will die back to the ground during harsh winters and reemerge in the spring.

Watering

Lamb’s ears only need about 1 inch of water per week. Water only if the soil feels dry. Lamb’s ears are drought-tolerant but will lose some of the older leaves during dry spells. Avoid watering the top of the plants; the leaves will rot or develop fungal leaf spots or powdery mildew if they get too wet. Leaves that are close to the ground are particularly susceptible to decay. You can help to keep the foliage dry by mulching underneath the leaves.

Soil

This perennial thrives in poor soil that is well-drained and has a slightly acidic pH. Treat it as you would any plant associated with a Mediterranean climate (many herbs fall into this category). Amend poor soil with organic matter to improve drainage before planting.

Fertilizing

You can skip giving your lamb’s ear fertilizer in most situations since it prefers soil that is not rich. However, you can add a thin layer of compost every spring to spur growth.

Pruning

Some growers find the flower stalks of lamb’s ear gangly in appearance. Deadheading the plant keeps it looking tidy and helps prevent pests. Removing dead leaves or parts will help prevent these pests. At the end of the growing season in late fall, the plant will begin to die back. Cut away the dying foliage to the soil level. If you don’t do this in the fall, you can cut away the dead foliage in the spring before new growth emerges.

If the plant spreads and you prefer to keep the plant’s clumping growths, look at the center point where the plant originates. Lamb’s ears spreading away from its center point means that the center and those roots have likely died. Remove the dead centers. The plant sets new roots as it spreads.

Propagation

Dividing 

If you wish to start a new patch of lamb’s ear, either dig up newer plants that self-seeded and naturally propagate on their own or divide established patches in the spring. These plants divide readily and benefit from a division every two or three years to keep them looking and remaining healthy. Flowering varieties may need to be divided more often than non-flowering forms. A visual cue that you should divide is when you have a wide-spreading plant with a dead center. The plant’s creeping stems will root wherever they make contact with the soil. Here are the steps to dividing lamb’s ear:

  • You’ll need a new container (or growing location), well-draining soil, and gardening gloves.
  • If the roots are firmly packed and aren’t budging, use a two-tined hand pitchfork to help you pry up the clump of lamb’s ears.
  • Gently pull up the clump. By hand, remove the dead, wilted parts and roots.
  • Separate the clump into sections. Each section should have healthy fibrous roots.
  • Plant each section at least 18 inches apart.

Seed

If the lamb’s ear has flowered and you have harvested the seeds or have access to lamb’s ear seeds, the best time to start seeds is indoors in the late winter—8 to 10 weeks before the last frost. Take these quick steps:

  • Moisten a good quality seed starting soil.
  • Press the seed into the soil but do not cover. The seed needs light to germinate.
  • Keep the soil moistened throughout the germination process.
  • You can also sow seeds outdoors after the threat of frost has passed.
  • It takes about 30 days for seeds to germinate.

Potting and Repotting 

Lamb’s ear is not usually kept as a potted plant, but it is sometimes used as a filler plant in large container gardens. It only needs water about once a week. If keeping it with other plants, make sure that it’s with plants that have similar watering needs. Consider using clay or terra-cotta planters with ample drainage holes, which help prevent overwatering issues.

Overwintering

The plant can withstand winter. It will die back and it will not look pretty, but it usually rebounds in the spring. The only unforeseen circumstances are root rot, pests, or other diseases that might take hold if you leave the dying foliage to rot. Shear the entire plant at the soil level at the end of the growing season to maintain its health and growth habits. Leaving dead leaves and growth puts the plant at more risk of pests and disease.

Pests and Diseases

Common Diseases

Lamb’s ear is not very susceptible to pest invasion, thanks to its hairy leaves. But it is prone to fungal disease due to its sensitivity to humid conditions and poorly draining soil. In the humid months of summer, it can develop rot and leaf spots, even if the soil is well-draining. Remove and discard affected plants.

Diseased foliage can sometimes attract sowbugs, which are not insects but a woodlouse, a land crustacean that feeds on fungi and bacteria on dead and rotting vegetation. To get rid of sowbugs, spread diatomaceous earth—a desiccant that dries out and kills sowbugs—on top of the soil around the plants.

Common Problems 

Lamb’s ear is drought and deer resistant. It’s not particularly susceptible to insect invasion, thanks in large part to its wooly, protective hairs on its stems and leaves. However, some diseases can creep in and wreak havoc.

Rotting Leaves

Lamb’s ears like to spread. It branches out, and as it does, it no longer needs its central root as it lays down new roots. It concentrates on its new growth and ignores its old roots, allowing them to die. It’s common to see dead central roots; expect it and pull it out. You can prevent significant root death by keeping the soil dry and thinning the plants.

Spots on Leaves

These plants are prone to fungal infections from organisms that create brown, black, powdery yellow, or white spots. Discard infected leaves and decomposing matter. Rotting material often invites fungal spores to move in on an otherwise healthy plant. To treat and salvage infected plants, use an antifungal spray and make sure the plant has plenty of air circulation.

Stunted Growth

Microscopic nematodes are not insects but slender, unsegmented roundworms. They feed on all parts of the plant. An infested plant will look sickly, wilted, or stunted, with yellowed or bronzed leaves, and it will eventually die. Unfortunately, the best way to eliminate the problem is to get rid of the plant.

III. Uses and Benefits 

Like many silvery plants, they are extremely drought tolerant. Perfect for rock gardens or a dry spot of average soil in a garden bed, lamb’s ears are easy plants to grow. The leaves quickly form a soft mat of rosettes. They were also once used as bandages and are reportedly helpful in relieving the pain of bee stings.

Evergreen in warm climates, leaves shrivel and die in colder winters. However, the plant doesn’t die unless planted in a boggy area. Remove desiccated foliage as new leaves emerge in spring.

Lamb’s ears make an attractive edging for beds and are wonderfully planted where people can walk and touch their foliage. Silvery leaves look great with bright purple or pink flowers and also blend with light pink blooms. They hide the knobby and unattractive canes of roses and soften other shrubs.

Of all the child-friendly plants in the garden, children seem most attracted to the soft woolly foliage of lamb’s ears. Grow it as a short and attractive border for a garden devoted to children or to your own sense of touch. With easy care of silvery foliage, this perennial is a must.

Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina) Details

Common name Donkey's Ears, Lamb's Ear, Lamb's-ears, Lamb's wool, Wooly Betony
Botanical name Stachys byzantina
Plant type Ground Cover
Hardiness zone 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Growth rate Medium
Harvest time Fall
Height 1 ft. 0 in. - 1 ft. 6 in.
Width 1 ft. 0 in. - 1 ft. 6 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Pink
Leaf color Gray/Silver