Stachys lanata (S. byzantina) is an old-fashioned garden plant that is native to Turkey and Iran. It is often overlooked when choosing plants for borders but it is really too good to ignore and I am glad I planted some in the garden last year. In one year a small plant has become the large clump shown below.
1. It is perfect ground cover in sun or part shade. The creeping stems root as they grow and will smother out all but the toughest weeds. It prefers well-drained soil but will grow in clay as well as sandy soils.
2. The flowering stems produce pink flowers over many weeks that attract bees. The flowers are not really showy but they are moderately attractive and the flower stems with their smaller leaves are nice for cutting and look good with pink roses and pinks. * see note below
3. Kids love this plant because it is so tactile. It is often called lamb’s lugs or lamb’s ears and it is practically impossible to pass it without giving the leaves a friendly stroke.
4. It grows rapidly and is not as intolerant of moisture as some other silver plants. So it makes perfect ground cover under roses and is easily mixed with catmint (nepeta) or hardy geraniums to give you the classic blue and silver under pink roses. Or plant it under white roses with white lilies for a ‘moon garden’.
5. It is easy to grow and propagate. Cut the plant back in spring to remove damaged foliage and dig up the clump and pull it apart and replant the youngest parts in fresh soil. If the plants look messy after flowering it is worth trimming them back to get rid of the dying flower stems. Give plants a feed after trimming and a water if the weather is dry and they will quickly regain their beauty. In fact if the summer is very hot and dry the leaves often get mildew. Cut the whole plant back, rub some compost into the exposed stems and roots and water well and it will bounce back into silvery elegance again.
* The common species produces flower stems about 40cm high but there are forms that rarely flower. These include ‘Silver Carpet’ and ‘Cotton Ball’. They are useful but not so good for bees. There is also the randomly variegated and generally unsatisfactory ‘Striped Phantom’ and the golden leaved ‘Primrose Heron’ which, though nice in theory, needs careful placing or the foliage scorches and looks dreadful – it is usually at its peak in the pot in the garden centre. ‘Big Ears’ is worth planting because of its huge foliage.