LADY’S MANTLE: A USEFUL PERENNIAL
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
The lady's mantle is a perennial I'd place in the underutilized group, deserving of wider use in gardens. It has attractive leaves, and chartreuse flowers than blend with so many colors. It tolerates a range of conditions, and has no real pests or problems.
The genus (Alchemilla) gets its name from the use of this plant by alchemists in the middle ages, believing it held many healing properties. It is in the rose family, but its flowers are not nearly as showy as its rose and cinquefoil (Potentilla) relatives.
Flowers of the lady's mantle vary from green to bright chartreuse, are apetalous (no petals) and are quite small but make up inflorescences (clusters of flowers) from six to nine inches across. Flowers, as well as other traits, were rated for 18 different species and cultivars of one species (mollis) in the extensive perennial trials of Richard Hawke at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Since flowers appear the same in bloom and after, this leads to a long effective bloom period, but makes rating difficult. So ratings in these trials were based on how colorful the flowers were, and how long they remained attractive. The cultivars had the brightest chartreuse flowers. Most species had good flowers, with only one rated poor (conjuncta) and three rated the best (bulgarica, epipsala, vulgaris).
The main show of lady's mantles through the season is with their leaves, which range in size from two inches (alpina, bulgarica) to six inches on cultivars (mollis). Leaves are generally grey-green, except for glossy green on a couple (conjuncta, saxatilis). Leaves have pubescence (small leaf hairs) either on both surfaces (erythropoda, mollis) or just on the undersides for most species. Those with silky hairs on the undersides can have prominent, and attractive, silvery margins (alpina, bulgarica, conjuncta, glaucescens).
The leaf hairs help make the leaves water resistant, so water beads up on them. These beaded water drops, as on a dewy morning, are one of the beauties of this plant.
The main differences in leaves among the various lady's mantles are whether they are deeply parted into leaflets, or lobed (indentations). Depending on species, there can be from five to 11 lobes, and they vary from shallow to cleft (cut almost to the middle of the leaf). Lobes are palmate, meaning they overlap to create a circular outline, resembling the palm of a hand.
Lady's mantles create a mound effect, the clumps arising from a woody rhizome (underground stem). Plants in the Chicago trials varied from five inches high and 12 inches wide for the smallest (alpina), to 15 inches high and 30 inches wide for the largest (mollis). If flowers are not cut off and allowed to set seeds, they can self sow readily, forming large drifts.
The result of this northern climate trial was that most species and cultivars of lady's mantle were similar, with only minor differences in leaves, flowers, and habits. This means that most will be good garden plants, and can be used for a similar effect, depending on availability.
For best growth, make sure plants are in well-drained soils. They grow best with consistently moist soils, but will tolerate some drought as I've observed in my own Vermont trials. With too much drought, especially in full sun, leaves may brown or wither. Merely cut such leaves back, and new ones will emerge. Plants grow in part shade, or full sun if sufficient moisture.
Consider using lady's mantles along edges to paths, walls, and walks in your garden. Let drifts cascade down slopes, or in rock gardens. Their neutral flower and leaf colors blend well with most other colors. Plan to try some with perennial geraniums (Geranium), bellflowers (Campanula), perennial sages (Salvia), coralbells (Heuchera), ferns, or roses.
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