After a misty morning the velvet leaves of Stachys lanata (lambs’ lugs or lambs’ ears or oreille de lapin in France which I almost prefer) were the most beautiful thing in the garden and the sparkles of water on the leaves were jewel-like. I have mentioned this plant before, with enthusiasm, but it has to be said that, beautiful though it is, after a year or two the woody, rhizomatous stems, get decidedly ugly and you need to chop it up or cut it very very hard back and work in some compost around the hideous bare stems that are left so it can bounce back.
It is a plant with two personalities, a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde, so it can be tricky to place effectively. In spring it forms a deep pile of impossibly soft, hairy leaves. I always wondered why my cat used to sleep in the middle of a clump of brown Carex comans rather than in the middle of my stachys which must have been so much softer but then that’s cats for you! Then, at this stage, the flowering stems extend like pagodas with ever smaller leaves, set at right angles to each other. and eventually the lavender flowers poke out through the silky sepals. And it is now that the stems have grown so long that the whole thing tends to collapse and, if you have chosen to edge your lawn with stachys, mowing becomes a problem. An answer is to chop of the stems, which will annoy the bees which delight in the flowers, but the problem then is that you leave gaps in the carpet of foliage, for a while at least. So wouldn’t it be great if there was a non-flowering form that was always low and neat. Well, it would stand to reason that a plant that has been cultivated for so long and so extensively has provided a few variations.
‘Big Ears’ is also known as ‘Helen von Stein’ and is, as you would suggest, a bigger plant than normal with leaves 20cm long. Although it is not a profuse bloomer it does have flowering stems with almost showy blooms. Sometimes I think it is not as hirsute as the normal plant and a bit greener and, for me, that misses the point entirely, like a white plumbago.
‘Cotton Boll’ (also ‘Cotton Ball’ and ‘Sheila MacQueen’) is sterile but in this case it still produces flowering stems but the clusters where there should be flowers are, instead, clusters of tiny bracts and sepals to make bobbly grey clusters along the stems. These are the sorts of things that flower arrangers love but the whole thing does nothing to solve the problem of teetering.
‘Silver Carpet’ does not have flowering stems at all so it is probably the best for most purposes.
And so we come to two that are not easy to work with.
‘Primrose Heron’ I was excited when this as first introduced. I have a feeling it was introduced by Blooms but I will not vouch for this. The leaves are, at their best, a soft but good yellow, like the filling of a good tarte au citon. The trouble is that the leaves often start this colour and then grey as though the tart has been in the bakery window too long. To look good it needs a bit of shade and relatively moist soil for a Stachys lanata. If too dry it just looses momentum and the leaves get brown edges and, of course, the mildew that makes the ordinary plant unsightly by the end of summer. I got increasingly frustrated with it and just gave up.
‘Striped Phantom’ This is another rather pointless thing that only a ‘stachystician’ could love. The leaves are striped with cream but erratically and it reverts with great willingness. The fact that the variegated leaves are covered with white hairs makes the colouring almost invisible and it is a bit like having a rare piece of Meissen pottery hidden in the attic.