UACES Facebook Stachys byzantine; Lamb’s Ear
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Plant of the Week: Stachys byzantine; Lamb’s Ear

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Each week since 1997, Dr. Gerald Klingaman has offered readers a unique window as he chronicles of the social history of plants.

"What always interested me was the background of the plants and how they got there and the people involved in bringing them forward," he said.

Klingaman, a retired extension horticulturist who is now operations director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, Arkansas, has created is a library of hundreds of plant histories that run in newspapers across the state and have become a favorite of gardeners in Arkansas and beyond. We hope you'll enjoy our extensive archive of his works and return each week to see what's new. 

Plant of the Week: Stachys byzantine; Lamb’s Ear 

Prior to the great toilet paper panic of this spring, nobody much talked about the necessity of wiping up after a bathroom run. Toilet paper is a necessity of modern life, but it wasn’t invented before 1857 and seems to have developed alongside indoor plumbing. What did they do before then? Perhaps the widespread occurrence of mullein and lamb’s ear in our urban spaces has a dirty little secret.

WHEN IN NEED — Lamb’s Ear is a widely adapted perennial that may have once been used as a handy toilet paper. (Image courtesy Gerald Klingaman.)

Lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) is a fuzzy, gray leafed perennial herb of the mint family that is native to the Middle East from Turkey to Iran. It is one of about 250 species of Stachys belonging to the mint family that is found widely around the world. This species is said to have been introduced into English gardens in 1782. It grows as a mat forming plant with the stout, square stems spreading from a central crown and outward to 2 feet or possibly more.

When the erect flowering stems are not present the plant forms a silvery-gray mat of leaves six to ten inches tall. The leaves are to 6 inches long and 2 inches wide and covered with a dense covering of soft hairs. The plants are mostly evergreen but low winter temperatures will kill the foliage until it reappears the following spring.

In late spring plants send up erect spikes of blooms-growing to 18 inches tall. Each whorl of flowers is subtended by a pair of small, hairy inch long leaves. The prominently two-lobed tubular flowers are pinkish purple in color and crowded into the bloom clusters at each node up the spike. Not being especially attractive, many gardeners snap the spikes off when they begin appearing.

My life with indoor plumbing began when I headed off to college in 1965, but before then, newsprint and Sears catalogs were our go-to resources in the old two-hole privy. But what was used before they started printing thick catalogs and wordy newspapers? Archeologists tell us Chinese travelers used spoon shaped sticks of bamboo along the Silk Road; Pompeiians – in what must have been a real extravagance – used bits of hand-woven cloth; some coastal communities used a sponge affixed to a stick. But mostly, nobody much talked about – or wrote down – what they used when they made their way to the necessary.

Surveying some survivalist websites from the early part of the current century, I find earnest discussion amongst the participants about what to use when the end comes and toilet paper is no longer available. Mullein leaves – sometimes referred to a cowboy toilet paper – seems to be the most often mentioned but lamb’s ear (also called “woman’s comfort”) has its fans too. I have no idea if the prevalence of these two plants across the country is related to the call of nature, but it just might be.

Lamb’s ear is a tough, easily grown plant that can be grown from zone 4 in the north to zone 8 in the south. It grows best in full sun in well drained sites. It is used as a groundcover, as an edging plant and as a showy accent in the rock garden. This plant has good heat and drought tolerance, but being planted too close to an irrigation head can cause it to melt away in the heat and humidity of a hot summer. Though widely seen across the nation, lamb’s ear is not mentioned as an invasive plant.

For more information about horticulture or to see other Plant of the Week columns, visit Extension’s Website, www.uaex.edu, or contact your county extension agent. The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the U of A Division of Agriculture.

 

By: Gerald Klingaman, Retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - July 10, 2020

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