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Gardening 101: Lungwort

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Gardening 101: Lungwort

March 27, 2017

Lungwort, Pulmonaria: “Garden Lungs”

Also known as lungwort, Pulmonaria has many other nicknames (try spotted dog or spotted Mary) which refer to its speckled and splashed “lung-shaped” leaves. Other nicknames refer to the peculiar habit in common lungwort of flowering in two colors at once, such as red and blue. Hence soldiers-and-sailors, or Joseph-and-Mary. Nicknames help to distinguish the lungwort, an otherwise quiet presence in a spring woodland garden.

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer for Gardenista.

Pulmonaria in spring.
Above: Pulmonaria in spring.

Lungwort was traditionally grown in the medicinal gardens of monasteries. The lung-shaped leaves were thought to be an indicator of powers against lung disease. This idea has not been entirely abandoned.

Like hellebores, with which they make good companions, Pulmonaria come in many varieties and they are all too eager to create more. To safeguard pure colors, deadhead the flowers before they set seed.

Although pulmonaria is considered a useful plant for a shaded or semi-shaded place, blue varieties are generally more tolerant of sun. For the best blues, stick to P. longifolia and angustifolia.
Above: Although pulmonaria is considered a useful plant for a shaded or semi-shaded place, blue varieties are generally more tolerant of sun. For the best blues, stick to P. longifolia and angustifolia.

A popular deep blue is ‘Blue Ensign’, with strongly shaped narrow leaves of plain green. A spotted-leafed version, with flowers of an equally striking blue, is ‘Benediction’.

Pulmonaria makes a well-behaved, early-flowering ground cover under shrubs and deciduous trees.
Above: Pulmonaria makes a well-behaved, early-flowering ground cover under shrubs and deciduous trees.

Cheat Sheet

• For foliage appreciators, lungwort is good value. Choose between plain green, spotted, splashed with silver or almost all silver, with a green rim.
• The blue or pink varieties are jewel-like in early spring sunshine and mingle well with bulbs such as snowdrop and dog’s tooth violet (Erythronium).
• White Pulmonaria glow in shade, coinciding with the re-awakening of bright green euphorbia. For pure white with spotted leaves there is ‘Sissinghurst White’; or ‘Moonshine’ with silvered leaves. Pale opalescent ‘Ocupal’ (pale blue, strictly speaking) is also effective, with silvery foliage.

Early flowering Pulmonaria is an excellent source of nectar.
Above: Early flowering Pulmonaria is an excellent source of nectar.

Keep It Alive

• Pulmonaria can be divided up in summer, though they also gently self-seed. They are easily repositioned straight into the ground, in cool “woodland” that doesn’t dry out.
• Humus-rich soil is ideal: damp and rich. Rotting leaves provide them with a happy home.
• Lungwort will tell you if conditions are too dry, with powdery mildew on its leaves.

 Above: Pulmonaria rubra is the color of coral, as long as there are no blues nearby to mix it up.
Above: Pulmonaria rubra is the color of coral, as long as there are no blues nearby to mix it up.

There is common Pulmonaria rubra, and there are more special varieties, such as ‘Bowless Red’. P. rubra has green leaves, though ‘David Bowles’ is variegated with white.

For a plant that tends toward violet, with a mix of blue and red in its flowers, there is P. longifolia ‘Ankum’. It also has spotted leaves. For silvered leaves, there is ‘Diana Clare’. Pink in bud, the flower opens as blue. The choice is yours.

N.B.: See more of our favorite springtime flowering plants in our Garden Design 101 guides:

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