The Gardener's Apprentice


Every five or ten years the horticultural world goes through a vogue for patterned leaves.  Everything old is new again as gardeners snap up some of the flashier hostas, variegated weigelas, Japanese painted ferns and all manner of plants with splotched, splashed and marbled leaves.  Breeders pump out even more of them to meet the new demand.  Our gardens are often the better for these excursions into foliar excitement—as long as gardeners remember that a little bit of pattern goes a long way in the landscape.

Early spring flowering pulmonaria or lungwort had a moment in the fashion spotlight a few years ago and seems to be on the verge of a comeback.  That encore will be the latest in a long series of such repeat performances, because the eastern European native plants have been used for both medicinal and decorative purposes for centuries.

The plants are small and low growing, with the majority topping out at less than 12 inches tall and just a bit wider.  Soft, somewhat hairy leaves are often—but not always–variegated in shades of pale green or silvery white.  Markings can range from discrete freckles to larger blotches to almost total coverage of each leaf.  Because pulmonaria thrive in shady situations, the variegation adds light to the green planting scheme.

Pulmonaria has at least 12 common names, including lungwort, Joseph and Mary, oak lungs, and Bethlehem sage.  Many of them hearken back to the Latin name, which is derived from the same root that gives us the word “pulmonary”.  The sands of time have long since obliterated the identity of the person who first noted a resemblance between the spotted, vaguely heart-shaped leaves and human lungs.  That resemblance was a bit of a stretch, but it worked nicely with the “doctrine of signatures”, an ancient idea that dictated the medicinal application of a particular plant based on its resemblance to a specific part or parts of the body.

Therefore, pulmonaria was used in concoctions to treat chest congestion, coughs and other pulmonary ailments.  Externally, it was sometimes also made into in poultices to sooth irritating conditions like eczema.

In the garden, pulmonaria soothes the longings of those anxious for color in shaded corners.  As a member of the borage or Boraginaceae family, pulmonaria is hard-wired to bear blue flowers, but in many varieties those blue blooms come with something extra.  The five-petaled trumpets appear darker or lighter pink when they open, eventually aging to blue or blue purple.  A mature plant might have flowers of both colors at the same time, adding to the showy effect.  A few varieties, like the time-honored ‘Sissinghurst White’ skip the color-changing routine and stick to an array of pristine white trumpets.

Pulmonaria has been extensively hybridized.  The American breeder, Terra Nova Nurseries, lists 37 varieties among its archived and current offerings.  British horticultural writer John Hoyland, expounding on pulmonaria virtues in The Telegraph, said, “…there are far too many named cultivars, often with little to tell them apart.”  Fortunately for the average American garden, only a few hybrids and varieties are widely available in nurseries.

Leaf shape and appearance are dependent on the parent species.  Popular parents include Pulmonaria longifolia, which boasts longer, narrower leaves than other lungworts.  The longtime favorite, ‘Bertram Anderson’, with long, lightly spotted leaves and vivid blue blooms, is a cultivated variety of the longifolia species.  Another garden stalwart, ‘Mrs. Moon’ is a cultivar of the often-used Pulmonaria saacharata, featuring plumper heart-shaped leaves, also adorned with pale green spots.  A third popular parent pulmonaria is Pulmonaria angustifolia, which boasts unadorned green foliage that is fatter than that of longifolia and slimmer than saacharata.  All three species bear similar flowers, some a brighter blue or a pinker pink, but all trumpet-shaped.

The flowers are beautiful, but the best thing about pulmonaria is that the leaves last, sometimes through winter.  Happy plants reproduce readily and after a few years you will have established clumps that can be divided, plus baby pulmonaria to scatter around at will.  All you have to provide is a shady spot with consistently moist soil.  The sturdy little plants work nicely under trees, in shaded borders or containers, or in shaded corners of herb gardens.

Better nurseries and garden centers will stock pulmonaria during the growing season, but for a good selection, try Digging Dog Nursery, 31101 Middle Ridge Road, Albion, CA 95410; (707) 937-1130; Free print catalog.