Meet Stachys byzantina, popularly known as lamb’s ears, lamb’s tails, lamb’s tongue, woolly betony or woolly hedgenettle. It’s a native of Iran, Turkey and the Caucasus, though long naturalized in Western Europe and North America, like other Caucasians – apples, for example. It belongs to the mint family, but makes an indifferent tea. Even so, the leaves are the attraction; the blossoms are small, nondescript, pink or purple things, nearly lost among the flower stalk’s silver fur. It needs full sun, and likes a dry, light soil, but will grow nearly as well in damp clay. It attracts hummingbirds, and at dusk in midsummer, the hummingbird sphynx.
Stachys byzantina is a hardy perennial, grown as a ground cover. This time of year it forms one of the few patches of green on the bare ground of my garden. “The leaves are often retained quite late into autumn or winter in mild areas but the plant is not properly evergreen, and the foliage falls eventually to be replaced by a fresh crop in spring,” says the BBC, but many other gardening guides do call it an evergreen. Cultivars have names like Big Ears, Helen Von Stein, Primrose Heron, Silver Carpet. The last-named cultivar has been bred not to flower at all.
Surrounded by champions of scent and color, S. byzantina appeals to an earthier sense: few garden visitors can resist bending down to stroke its ears, or tails, or tongues – whatever they are. Rain beads on them like pills on a wool sweater. In early spring, when new growth crowds upon the old, silent tongues wagging in all directions, the colony seems Byzantine indeed. Let it get out of hand, and you’ll never see the ground again, though occasionally a blade of grass may intrude upon its woolgathering. It shares a genus with Chinese artichoke, wood betony, and woundwort.