The Stachys group (pronounced STAY kiss) is an interesting family with a variety of characters and a long, long history. To me, the family falls into three distinct groups. The most familiar to gardeners is the wooly, silver-leaved plant generally called Lamb’s Ears. This hardy perennial is famous as a spreading groundcover that forms dense mats in sun to light shade, in well-drained soils. Most lamb’s ears (Stachys lanata or byzantina) produce 12-20” tall flower spikes with tiny purple-pink flowers that if left uncut self-seed abundantly. When the lambs ears bloom, the bumblebees and honeybees are happy. There are many varieties of lamb’s ears, including a huge-leaved one that is more gray than silver called either “Big Ears” or “Helene von Stein” and a non-flowering one called “Silver Carpet.” A recent dwarf introduction is “Silky Fleece” with leaves that barely reach 3” in height and bloom stalks of only 10”. Other commonly found varieties are “Fuzzy Wuzzy” and “Cotton Boll.” The leaves of lamb’s ears have a long history of medicinal and craft uses. One of its folk names is “bandage plant” because it is used like a band-aid over cuts and scrapes. It has also been used to pack wounds to stop bleeding. The leaves can be shaped and dried in wreaths or bows. Another plant that I place in this group has the folk name “Downy Woundwort.” It is very similar to common lamb’s ears, but it is less silvery and less wooly. It also grows taller, often reaching three feet in my garden.
The most important plant in the second group is the perennial Stachys officinalis, generally called Betony, Wood Betony or Purple Betony. In older times is was classified as Betonica officinalis. This is one of my favorite perennials. It is easy to grow and has pretty purple-rose flower spikes in summer. A close relative is Stachys grandiflora or S. macrantha which generally has fluffier, larger flowers.
There are also the white-flowered Stachys discolor, Stachyts recta, and a low-growing variety called Stachys densiflora "alba" which forms a pretty groundcover.
Stachys monieri has lovely pink or purple-rose flowers. Plant breeders have been working with color range and increasing the flower stalk and bloom size of wood betony. Recently, a lovely, fluffy pink variety was introduced called "Pink Cotton Candy."
Pink Cotton Candy
All of these tidy betony plants have a rosette of dark green glossy leaves, each of which has a beautiful scalloped or toothed edge. Mine grow well in full sun or part shade, well-drained soils in winter, although they tend to wilt a bit during the hottest months if not watered occasionally. In summer, the plants produce 18” spikes of very pretty purple, pink or white blooms that are loved by butterflies and bees. Stachys officinalis has a long history of value in magic, medicine, tea, and even a bit of culinary use, and the flowering spikes are lovely in fresh floral arrangements.
The third group is made of tender perennials (Stachys coccinea) here in Zone 5, but hardy in Zones 7 and higher. They are worth growing for their velvety gray leaves and spikes of bright coral blooms. I first saw these growing in Texas, and have grown them off and on for years. They are also loved by butterflies and bees, and prefer sunny, well-drained soils, and will bloom the first year from seed if started early. The most commonly found are “Chinook” which has intense coral-red blooms and “Pow Wow” that is somewhat bushier with brick-red flowers. Both of these plants are 12-15” tall, and work well in containers.
Most of the lore surrounding the Stachys family relates to Betony. It was said to be discovered by Chiron the Centaur. Legend says when snakes are placed in a ring of betony, they will battle one another to the death, and that wounded animals seek betony to be healed.
Betony was used as a powerful amulet, protecting against all evil. Leaves were placed in small bags around the neck, or carried in pockets, and were often tied to animals to keep them safe and healthy. It was often planted in churchyards and around houses for protection for any evil or illness.
In olden days, betony was thought to be a cure for elf-sickness, that dreaded disease that “froze” people into statutes. If one offended an elf mightily, one would be struck with elf-sickness, and there were very few reliable cures.
Betony was often used as a snuff or smoking mixture. Medicinally, betony was so valued that the old saying was that even in winter, “one should sell his coat and buy betony.” It was thought to aid anything to do with the head, including migraines, head colds, and insomnia. It also has a history of use for urinary tract inflammation and asthma. Betony was listed by both Dioscorides and Hildegard de Bingen as an important medicinal plant.
Betony (Stachys officinalis) is commonly used as a tea plant. I find that it has a flavor similar to common black tea, and it is soothing and calming. The standard wood betony, or the white or pink flowered varieties can be used. Authorities recommend that it be drunk in moderation since in large doses it can be purgative.
Betony has also been used as a flavoring for cordials.
We expect to have the following plants:
Lambs Ears: Common, Helen von Stein (Big Ears)
Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis)
Betony, Saharan Pink (Stachys monieri)
Betony, Carolee’s Crosses- our own Stachys crosses with extra large fluffy “Rose,”
“Pink,” or “Purple” flowers
Betony, “Hummelo”-(Stachys monieri)
Betony, “Pink Cotton Candy”-(Stachys officinalis PPAF)
Stachys coccincea: Pow Wow, Chinook
Betony, White Creeping ( Stachys densiflora alba)