These low-maintenance perennials make an engaging ground cover, says Miranda Kimberley.

Stachys provides gardeners and designers with excellent options for hot, dry gardens as well as wildlife gardens. Stachys byzantina (synonym S. lanata), known commonly as lamb's ears because of its grey, downy leaves, is one of the most tolerant silver-leaved plants and is useful for low edging or in Mediterranean planting schemes. It is also increasingly used in sensory gardens, being highly tactile.

The genus also includes species with more of a nettle-like look because they have dark green, crinkled leaves and upright stems. For example, S. officinalis, the native wood betony, and S. germanica, another hedgerow native, the downy woundwort, are very attractive to bees and butterflies and therefore suit both the wildlife garden and herbaceous border in their cultivated forms.

S. macrantha has also been used to produce many excellent garden plants. They also have upright stems and dark green leaves. Stachys flowers are borne on spikes - the genus name is Greek for "an ear of grain", referring to their shape. The flowers can be purple, pink, red, pale yellow or white.

As well as herbaceous perennials, there are shrubs or sub shrubs within the genus, some of which grow up to 3m tall and are evergreen. Most are woolly or hairy and flower in late spring or summer.

Many grown in the UK are fully hardy but there are few more tender plants such as S. albotomentosa. S. byzantina will keep its leaves until quite late into autumn or winter in mild areas, but the plant is not properly evergreen and the foliage usually falls. New leaves will emerge in the spring.

Stachys likes well-drained and moderately fertile soil, though it does tolerate poor soil. The downy-leaved species need full sun and the others tolerate shade for some of the day.

Plants can be propagated by seed or division. Softwood cuttings can also be made of the shrubby species in summer. They should be rooted in a sandy propagating mix in a closed case.

What the specialists say

DAVID WARD, plant production manager, The Beth Chatto Gardens, Essex

"S. byzantina 'Silver Carpet' is probably the best selling variety of the lamb's ears type. It's a non-flowering form that really does form a silver carpet of leaves.

"Then there is S. byzantina 'Cotton Boll', which has white bobbles on the flower stems. The miniature S. byzantina 'Silky Fleece' is good for smaller areas and in the rock garden. Another good variety is S. byzantina 'Big Ears', which has large leaves and attractive flowers.

"They are good for hot, dry positions, such as sunny front gardens. You can pretty much leave them to their own devices, though they can suffer from mildew during a hot summer.

"Then there are the mor upright varieties, such as S. macrantha 'Alba' and S. officinalis 'Rosea Superba'. They are best in a border, in moisture-retentive soil, also in a sunny position."

KEVIN MARSH, grower, Beeches Nursery, Essex

"There is a new variety called S. byzantina 'Silver Fleece', which is smaller and comes true from seed. It makes good ground cover, as does the non-flowering S. byzantina 'Silver Carpet'.

"S. macrantha is also always popular. It produces fat spikes of purple flowers. The violet-purple flowered S. macrantha 'Violacea' is also nice. Of the macrantha varieties, 'Superba' is probably our best-seller, with its big fat pink spikes of flowers.

"S. officinalis has two excellent varieties, 'Hummelo' and 'Saharan Pink', both with soft pink flowers. My favourite though is a rare species, S. ossetica, which has big fat lemon yellow trumpets. It's a new one, so there aren't many plants available yet and it's not well known, but I'm sure it will be popular in the next few years."

ROBIN PEARCE, partner, Robin Pearce Plants, Worcestershire

"A variety that I really rate, and isn't used an awful lot, is S. byzantina 'Silky Fleece'. It's a tiny one, just an inch or so high. It makes excellent ground cover. Another one we do very well with is S. byzantina 'Big Ears', which has extremely large, furry leaves. Its useful in sensory gardens - we've had quite a few hospital and hospices buy plants from us for this purpose.

"The other one I've come to really love in the past year is the pink-flowered S. officinalis 'Hummelo'. It's useful in naturalistic planting, with grasses such as Molinia. It's best grown in groups because it can look insignificant when planted singly. Another species that is becoming increasingly popular is S. albotomentosa. It's not that hardy but has delightful salmon pink flowers.

"The silver-leaved ones make excellent ground cover plants. They add a completely different texture to the garden and they are virtually trouble-free - the only thing to watch out for is snails and slugs - and they can get mildew."

In practice

SHELLEY MOSCO, landscape architect, Green Graphite Landscape Design

"I often use S. byzantina. For example, I included it in a recent project, which was a garden for people with learning difficulties.

"I used it because it is a 'touchy-feely' plant, with its downy leaves, and was ideal for this sensory garden in which people are encouraged to touch the plants. It also works well in Mediterranean planting, when you want texture as well as colour. I also recently used Stachys in a living wall.

"Small varieties like S. byzantina 'Silver Carpet' are probably best. I have had mixed success with it so far. The biggest problem is the winter wet. If used more typically in a border, I put S. byzantina at the front, again so people can actually touch the plants. It's cheaper than a cat."

Species and cultivars

- S. albotomentosa bears spikes of salmon flowers between June and October. The leaves are woolly and grey with a white underside. Height 40cm, spread 55cm.

- S. byzantina (syn. lanata) has woolly, grey foliage and mauve pink flowers in the summer. Ideal used at the front of a border or as ground cover. Height 30-38cm. Spread 60cm.

- S. byzantina 'Big Ears' has broader, bolder leaves than the type. They are not as heavily felted, but are still woolly and grey-green. It produces pink flowers. Height 30cm, spread 60cm.

- S. byzantina 'Cotton Boll' has large woolly, grey-green foliage and produces round, silvery-white velvety bobbles along a stiff tall stem. Height 35cm, spread 60cm.

- S. byzantina 'Primrose Heron' has juvenile leaves that are a pale yellow colour, becoming grey when dry conditions allow the plant to protect itself with fine, soft pile. Introduced by Sue Gemmell and protected by Plant Breeder's Rights. Height 38cm in flower.

- S. byzantina 'Silky Fleece' has small, white woolly foliage and small lilac-plum flowers between June and August. It forms cushions and makes excellent ground cover. Height 25cm.

- S. byzantina 'Silver Carpet' is a non-flowering form that creates carpets of ovate velvet-textured, silver-grey leaves. Height 12 cm.

- S. coccinea creates a bushy plant and bears red flowers between June and August.

- S. discolor has small, crinkled, dark-green leaves and large, creamy-coloured flowers, borne between July and September.

- S. macrantha is a slow-growing perennial with clumps of rich green, scallop-edged leaves that spread gradually. Rosy-mauve funnel-shaped flowers in whorls are held on erect branching stems in June. Height up to 60cm.

- S. macrantha 'Alba' has light-green leaves and vertical stems bearing whorls of pure-white flowers. Height 60 cm.

- S. macrantha 'Robusta' Award of Garden Merit features fat spikes of large, deep purple flowers from June to July above rich green crinkled leaves. Height 55cm.

- S. macrantha 'Superba' has large lilac-purple flowers between May and June. A gently spreading plant. Height 55cm.

- S. macrantha 'Violacea' is slower growing than the type. It has rich violet-purple flowers.

- S. officinalis (syn. monieri) is wood betony, a native wild flower found in shady places such as hedge banks and woodland margins. Its purple flowers, seen from June to September, are very attractive to bees and butterflies. Height up to 60cm, spread up to 45cm.

- S. officinalis 'Alba' has pure white flowers and dark green leaves.

- S. officinalis 'Hummelo' bears upright spikes of rose-lavender flowers above dark green crinkled leaves. Height 40cm.

- S. officinalis 'Rosea' produces upright pink flower spikes between June and August. It also has crinkled mid-green leaves and prefers light shade.

- S. officinalis 'Rosea Superba' has bright green crinkled leaves and numerous stems topped with dense heads of small, rose-pink flowers in midsummer. Height 45 cm.

- S. officinalis 'Saharan Pink' bears soft-pink flowers with a deep mouth. Height 20cm.

- S. ossetica is not widely available but is an attractive species with large, tubular, creamy-yellow flowers and dark-green textured leaves.

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