Lungwort—Prettier than it Sounds


It’s easy to understand why we want to include Sweet William, Lamb’s Ears, or Love-in-a-Mist in our gardens. Their whimsical names make us smile. On the other hand, it’s surprising anyone grows plants with names such as fumewort, blood lily, or wormwood. They sound awful! In fact, these plants are quite beautiful, as you can see below (clockwise from upper right).

One of the plants saddled with similarly unfortunate name is lungwort. Even its genus, Pulmonaria, means lungs. I would love to give this flower an image makeover, because it belongs in every shaded garden. (We could begin by using its other common name, Bethlehem Sage, but it’s not from Bethlehem, nor is it a sage.)

Pulmonaria_Lungwort_DBG-CO_LAH_4433It’s easy to see where lung reference comes from. The broad green leaves are spotted with pale gray, black, blue, or green, and they really do remind one of the alveoli of our lungs. Back in the day when diseases were treated with herbs, it was believed that the superficial resemblance implied a connection. Lungwort was used to alleviate respiratory problems.

Pulmonaria_Lungwort_DBG_LAH_4730These days, we grow lungwort because it’s a lovely plant. The unusual, hairy leaves are often the main attraction, but the flowers are quite pretty too. The clusters of small trumpet-shaped blossoms, each with five petals, start out pink and fade to blue. Often, both pink and blue flowers are present at the same time. (A few cultivars are white.) A close look at the flowers tells you they’re in the borage family.

There are several species of Pulmonaria, all native to Europe and/or Asia. These species have been crossed and bred, resulting in a number of ornamental cultivars. ‘Mrs. Moon’ is one of the most popular, with well-defined spots on its leaves, a compact habit, and enthusiastic bloom. ‘Silver Bouquet’ and ‘Moonshine’ have particularly silvery leaves—the pale spots are enlarged until they run together.  ‘Raspberry Splash’ is a hybrid with particularly attractive upright foliage and raspberry-pink flowers.

Pulmonaria x_Lungwort_DBG_LAH_6838

Plants do best in light to heavy shade (the leaves scorch in full sun). They require constantly moist (but well-drained) soil with plenty of organic matter in it. This means that they’re a bit challenging for Colorado, but they’re worth the effort. Amend with compost to start, then top dress yearly and let the worms do the digging. A thick mulch of wood chips will keep the ground on the damp side.

Pulmonaria 'Excalibur'_Lungwort_DBG_LAH_2218Pulmonaria spreads slowly via rhizomes, eventually forming a thick clump from eight to eighteen inches high. Plants can be divided in the fall when they start to get too large. It’s a perennial, returning to bloom every year in early spring. Plants are hardy from zone 3 (some articles say zone 2) to 8, making them suitable for all altitudes.

Plants are largely problem-free. Powdery mildew can be an issue, especially if humidity is very low. A mister might help, or search for a resistant variety. Snails or slugs feast on the leaves, but thankfully we don’t have a lot of those in Colorado.

Lungwort belongs in a woodland garden, under trees or on the north side of a building and combining well with other damp-shade plants such as Bleeding Heart, hostas, or Astilbe. It tolerates browsing deer and is supposedly rabbit-proof. I’ll see if our local bunnies agree.

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