Lamb's ear is a low-growing, spreading perennial plant with velvety, pale, silvery gray-green foliage. The growth rate is medium but steady. Gardeners plant it primarily for the color and texture of its elliptical leaves and often recommend it for children's and sensory gardens because of its soft feel, which is the source of the plant's name.
Because of their suede-like texture, lamb's ears are favored for their foliage rather than their flowers. However, some varieties do flower on tall spikes in the late spring or early summer, in shades of pinkish-purple or white. Some gardeners find the flower spikes charming, while others cut them off to encourage the foliage, as many do with hosta. Bees are not so fussy and are very attracted to the slightly fragrant flowers.
|Common Name||Lamb's ear|
|Botanical Name||Stachys byzantina|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous perennial|
|Mature Size||9-18 in. tall, 12-18 in. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full, partial|
|Soil pH||Acidic, alkaline, neutral|
|Bloom Time||Spring, summer|
|Flower Color||Purple, pink|
|Hardiness Zones||4-8 (USDA)|
Lamb's Ear Care
Lamb's ear is extremely easy to grow. The only caveat is its need for well-drained soil. Otherwise, they are very difficult to kill. Lamb's ear prefers soil that is on the dry side and thrives best in full sun (although some afternoon shade is helpful in very warm climates).
Don't try to use lamb's ear as a specimen plant. They look best either as a rambling ground cover or as soft edging. The silvery foliage makes an especially nice complement to purple flowering plants. As an edger, they will need to be kept within bounds.
These plants readily spread because their stems can take root if they touch the soil and they self-seed profusely, although you can control that by deadheading.
Lamb's ear can be invasive in warmer climates and very hard to eradicate. Check with your local Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) or Cooperative Extension before planting.
Lamb's ear prefers full sun to part shade. They'll need more shade in hot climates and during hot, dry summers because the leaves can burn to a crisp if they are exposed to hot sun without water for long periods.
Lamb's ear prefers a dry to medium-moisture, slightly acidic or slightly alkaline soil. Although they are not terribly fussy about soil pH, they do need well-draining soil. If your soil tends to retain water, add a good amount of organic matter before planting.
Lamb's ear is native to dry regions of western Asia, and it does best in relatively dry to medium-moisture conditions. Rot and fungal leaf spot may result if they receive too much water.
Temperature and Humidity
These are quite adaptable plants and can be grown in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8. When summers are extremely hot and dry, lamb's ear will require more shade. This plant is not well-suited for very humid locations, where fungal leaf spots are frequently a problem.
Lamb's ear does not like rich, fertile soil, and it is generally best to avoid feeding it with supplemental fertilizers.
Types of Lamb's Ear
Recommended cultivars of lamb's ear include:
- Stachys byzantina 'Silver Carpet': This cultivar does not bloom at all and is grown only for its attractive leaves.
- Stachys byzantina 'Helen von Stein': This is another non-bloomer. It is a slightly larger plant, at 12 to 18 inches tall and 18 to 24 inches wide. It is also known as 'Big Ears'.
Aside from deadheading the flowers and flower stalks, lamb's ear requires very little maintenance. The lower foliage can become brown and tattered looking later in the season and will look better with some cleanup. New leaves will quickly fill in. Many gardeners remove the flower stalks before the flowers bloom because this is a plant grown mostly for its foliage. If you want to be kind to the local bees, however, keep the flower stalks for them to enjoy the tiny insignificant blooms.
Propagating Lamb's Ear
Lamb's ear's spreading habit and the tendency to grow from the center out, leaving a dead spot in the middle, makes the plant a candidate for frequent division, every two to four years. Division is the easiest way to propagate lamb's ear. The newer varieties on the market that do not flower tend to be slow growers and won't need division quite so frequently.
Lamb's ear divisions transplant very easily:
- In the spring, use a shovel dig and remove the entire plant and its roots.
- Separate it into fist-sized divisions either by gently pulling it apart or cutting it with a soil knife.
- Plant the divisions in a prepared garden bed and water them in well. Keep the soil moist but not soggy for the next week or two, until it has overcome its transplant shock.
- Continue watering in the absence of rain until you see some new growth.
How to Grow Lamb's Ear From Seed
You can start lamb's ear from seed, but if you want one of the hybrids, such as 'Helen von Stein', you will need to start with nursery plants.
- Start seeds indoors, eight to ten weeks before your last frost date—they can take up to a month to germinate.
- In trays or pots filled with a moistened seed starting mix, press lamb's ear seeds into the soil but do not cover them with soil.
- Warm soil temperature aids germination, so place the seeded tray or pots on a heating mat or a warm space such as the top of the refrigerator or a table above a heat vent
- Harden off the seedlings before planting them outdoors. Spring is the best time to set out plants so they can become established during cooler weather.
- Space plants two to three feet apart. You can plant them closer together for a bigger impact, and if the bed becomes too crowded, dig and move some plants to another location.
Once lamb's ear is established, it can handle winter conditions quite well. It might even remain green during milder winters. In the spring, gently rake through the lamb's ear to remove winter debris.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
Lamb's ear is prone to fungal diseases, perhaps mostly because it grows so low to the ground. The regular use of a fungicide and good watering techniques can go a long way toward preventing disease. Nematodes will sometimes attack lamb's ear, stunting its growth.
Common Problems for Lamb's Ear
Because the foliage grows so close to the ground, rotting can become a problem. Mulching under the plants helps keep leaves dry. When watering the plant, make sure to aim the water at the soil rather than wetting the foliage, which can help prevent fungal spots.
Can lamb's ear grow indoors?
Though it might grow indoors as an immature plant, lamb's ear needs room to spread out, which makes it more suitable for growing in a garden bed.
What are alternatives to lamb's ear?
If you're looking for a brighter spot of color, you can find it with mullein, which offers bright yellow blooms but the same softness of lamb's ear leaves. Rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) is also a good alternative with its soft, fuzzy, silver foliage and larger and more attractive blooms.
“Lambs Ear.” Tmparksfoundation, https://www.tmparksfoundation.org/plants-fungi/lambs-ear
“Stachys Byzantina.” Ncsu.Edu, https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/stachys-byzantina/
“Stachys Byzantina - Plant Finder.” Missouribotanicalgarden.Org, https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=281603&isprofile=1&basic=stachys%20byzantina
“Lamb’s Ear (Stachys Byzantina)-Powdery Mildew.” Pacific Northwest Pest Management Handbooks, 26 Mar. 2021, https://pnwhandbooks.org/plantdisease/host-disease/lambs-ear-stachys-byzantina-powdery-mildew