Lady’s mantle, Alchemilla mollis, may not always be the star of the show, playing instead a supporting role for more showy perennials, but it is indispensable in the garden at Winterbourne, colonising the fronts of borders and ‘difficult’ spots where little else will grow. Each June and July its sprays of acid yellow flowers lift the spirits and seem to make all the other colours around it seem that little bit brighter.
It is this ability to harmonise so effortlessly with other plants that makes Alchemilla so useful. Whatever the scheme, be it a traditional Arts and Crafts garden filled with billowing borders, or a cool, sophisticated urban courtyard garden, Alchemilla rarely looks out of place.
Plantsmen love it for its foliage as much as its flowers. Cristopher Lloyd describes the plant made fashionable 30 years or so before he wrote his classic ‘Foliage Plants’ in 1973: “Its leaves are like an umbrella turned inside out and they are hairy, holding raindrops in their centre, but with a light-reflecting air bubble trapped underneath, that winks and sparkles with contagious glee.”
It is these raindrops that may have influenced the plants name. It is said that alchemists used to consider the droplets on the leaves the purest form of water and used them in their quest to turn base metal into gold. In addition the common name ‘Lady’s mantle’ is said to derive from the fact that the leaves are shaped like a cloak (mantle), specifically the one that the Virgin Mary wore on her journey to Bethlehem. Lady’s mantle may also refer to its medicinal properties associated with the care of women. It’s anti-inflammatory and astringent properties are good for regulating menstruation and the flowers were often made into a tea used in late pregnancy to help strengthen the uterus.
For the gardener it’s handy to know that you can also make poultices of the young leaves for minor cuts. Mash the leaves and place under a plaster overnight to help heal those nicks and scrapes that plague even the greenest of fingers!
Alchemilla are extremely easy to grow and are just as happy in sun or shade. A moisture retentive soil is preferred but then they will often surprise you and pop up in the most unhospitable of places in the garden, like a crack between paving stones, and grow merrily away.
In fact, self-seeding can become a problem if a proliferation of plants is not desired. This is easily rectified by removing fading flowers before they set seed, and a tidy-up of tired looking leaves at the same time will result in a second flush of fresh, young growth later in the year.
At Winterbourne, quite a few can be seen growing in the Walled Garden where they combine nicely with the violet-blue flowers of ornamental catmint, Nepeta x faassenii. They sharpen up the colours of neighbouring plants in this range; pink, mauve and blue, but would do equally well in stronger, bold schemes of orange, red and yellow, cooling the palette a little with their silvery leaves.
There are other species, of course, that merit a place in the garden. Dwarf Lady’s mantle, Alchemilla erythropoda, is smaller and much less imposing than A. mollis. More care, perhaps, is needed to ensure it is not out-muscled by other more bullish perennials, but otherwise it behaves in a similar way, and has the advantage of lasting much longer into the year before becoming straggly and needing cutting back.
Alpine lady’s mantle, Alchemilla alpina, is similarly diminutive and provides another good option for those looking for some easy to grow ground-covering plants. It is easily distinguishable by its leaf shape which is comprised of individual leaflets, each gilded with a brilliant, fine silver edge, as opposed to one single, pleated leaf. It will grow in full sun or partial shade and looks best in a rockery, or forming clumps along the edges of paths and walls.