Lamb's ear is a sun-loving perennial plant grown for its thick, fuzzy, silvery foliage that creates a soft-textured mat in the garden. The plants spread readily, making them effective groundcovers for sunny areas. As a drought-tolerant perennial, lamb's ear is also a good candidate for xeriscaping and rock gardens. Lamb's ear is a fast grower typically planted in the spring. A few new plants or cuttings started early in the spring can fill a large area by fall.
Quickly forming low mats of leaves, these well-known plants are grown more for the texture and color of the leaves than for the flowers. However, they occasionally produce light purple flowers on tall spikes. The flower spikes can reach 12 to 18 inches in height, but the rest of the plant stays low to the ground and has a spread of about one foot. The color of the silvery foliage stands out when experimenting with colors in your landscape design.
Indigenous to parts of the Middle East, lamb's ear is a fast-spreading plant in some parts of North America but is not listed officially by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an invasive plant. The plants are also deer-resistant and rabbit-proof.
|Common Name||Lamb's ears, Wooly Betony|
|Botanical Name||Stachys byzantina|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous perennial|
|Mature Size||12–18 in. tall, up to 12 in. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full to partial|
|Soil Type||Well-draining, evenly moist to dry soil|
|Soil pH||Slightly acidic (6.0–6.5)|
|Flower Color||Light purple|
|Hardiness Zones||4a–9a (USDA)|
|Native Area||Middle East|
Lamb's Ear Care
Stachys byzantina is easy to grow in dry to medium-moisture soil in a sunny location but can be an excessively aggressive grower in rich soil. Because they spread quickly, plant them about 18 inches apart and avoid overwatering. If the leaves decline in the heat of summer, pick them off.
If flowering stems appear, you may want to remove them; this sacrifice will encourage the plants to spread with vigorous foliage. You can also control the spread of creeping stems with edging. The flowers aren't very showy, but the flowers and leaves have a pleasant, fruity smell.
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.
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.
Lamb's ears only need about one 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.
Temperature and Humidity
Lamb's ear grows well throughout its hardiness range, zones 4a to 9a withstanding a range of temperatures. It dislikes 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.
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.
Types of Lamb's Ear
Lamb's ear has many cultivars; these are a few of the most common:
- 'Big Ears' or 'Helen von Stein': Popular variety for its bigger leaves; can go years without blooming; has relatively good disease resistance
- 'Silver Carpet': Another cultivar that does not flower often; stays short at 4 to 6 inches tall with a spread of 9 to 18 inches; its dimensions make it a good ground cover
- 'Cotton Boll': Gets its name from the fuzzy, wooly formations on its flower stalks where flowers should emerge but often do not; instead, it yields interesting-looking cotton bolls
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.
Propagating Lamb's Ear
If you wish to start a new patch of lamb's ear, either dig up newer plants that self-seeded and naturally propagated 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 divide 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.
How to Grow Lamb's Ear From Seeds
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. 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
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.
The plant can withstand winter. It will die back and 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.
Common Plant 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.
How to Get Lamb's Ear to Bloom
Some cultivars have been bred to rarely bloom, including 'Countess Helen von Stein', 'Silver Carpet', and 'Big Ears': They have been developed for their unique woolly foliage rather than flowers. However, if you have your heart set on this plant's small tiny flowers on one-foot-long stalks, there are a few things to try to spur blooming.
Lamb's ear usually does not bloom in its first growth year. So, be patient. Once the plant has bloomed, deadhead the spent flowers to encourage reblooming. Monitor watering and sun levels, full sun produces more blooms. When freshly crushed, the plant has a vaguely sweet smell, but it is not treasured for it blooms and is not likely to make an appearance in your cut flower arrangements anytime soon.
Common Problems With Lamb's Ear
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.
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 and 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 try to salvage infected plants, use an antifungal spray and make sure the plant has plenty of air circulation.
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 eventually die. The best way to get rid of the problem is to get rid of the plant.
What's the difference between lamb's ear and mullein?
Lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina) and mullein (Verbascum sp.) are plants with velvety, wooly leaves. Besides looking alike, they are in different families, require slightly different conditions, and have other growth habits. Lamb's ear grows in zones 4a through 9a and can be used as a winter or spring annual in zones 9b through 11, although it cannot survive hot, humid summers. Mullein grows in USDA zones 3 through 9 and is an invasive weed in all states except the northernmost U.S.
What is an alternative to lamb's ear?
If you don't want your lamb's ear to overtake an area, but you like the soft silvery foliage, you might want to consider silver sage (Salvia argentea). Silver sage is an excellent substitute for lamb's ears. It's big, bold, furry, and has soft silvery leaves. The blooms are showier than lamb's ear and silver sage is more tolerant of heat and humidity.
Can lamb's ear grow indoors?
You can maintain lamb's ears as a houseplant, but it requires ample sunlight. Place it in a south-facing window with at least eight hours of direct light or use grow lights. Go light on the water and opt for bottom watering to avoid wetting the leaves.