Stachys 'Helen von Stein'

An Ode to Helen the Conqueror

by Andrew Keys on April 4, 2012

Among the workhorses in my garden, Helen von Stein is a workaholic.

Who is Helen anyway? In my garden, Helen is a vigorous, large-leaved cultivar of lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), with various noms des plumes: ‘Helen von Stein,’ ‘Helene von Stein,’ ‘Countess Helen von Stein,’ the most fascinating ‘Countess Helen von Stein Zeppelin,’ and the least, ‘Big Ears,’ a name which is apparently sanitized just for the protection of U.S. customers.

I always wondered who in heck the REAL Helen was, and let me tell you, it took a lot of sifting through Google results to figure it out. Yes, in fact, she was Countess Helen von Stein Zeppelin, and from what I can gather, she was a famed German nurserywoman. Assuming we have her to thank for this lamb’s ear, she seriously rocks. Here’s a Life Magazine image of Countess von Stein Zeppelin judging an iris competition in Florence circa 1960. You can buy a framed print!

The lamb’s ear ‘Helen von Stein’ is a lot bigger than the average lamb’s ear. Mine began as a couple of gallon pots that I divided, divided, and divided some more. It’s sterile and isn’t supposed to bloom, though you’ll see a stray flower or two. The best thing about them: any little division will grow, and with zero water, and I mean ZERO, in our temperate climate, save for the most extreme heat of summer–or, you know, springs like this where it doesn’t rain. If we’re getting the average about of precip, stick a shred with a stem in the ground, and it will grow, and any decent-sized division in spring will result in a handsome clump by fall. It’s happy in sun and a bit of shade, and this year, I’m even testing it in a more than a half day’s shade, because why not? I have plenty, and there seems to be no limit to what this plant can do. It may be the best filler ever.

Hardiness: Zones 4-9, though lamb’s ears don’t love hot, humid climates (this variety is your best bet, though, if you want to try them)
Best features: Fuzzy, silver foliage, drought tolerance, ease of division
Comes from: Parents native to the Middle East
Sources: Many. Just Google it, or check your local nursery.

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