Sometimes the nicest plants have names that do them no favours. One of our prettiest spring flowering plants is one such, with the common name of ‘lungwort’.
Indeed, the scientific name ‘Pulmonaria’ is derived from Latin pulmo, meaning lung, as the spotted oval leaves were thought to resemble lung tissue.
This is a classic example of the Doctrine of Signature, an important aspect of folk medicine from the Middle Ages. Often associated with the work of herbalists and ‘wise women’, it drew upon the belief that natural objects (and not just plants) that looked like a part of the body would cure diseases that would arise there.
Pulmonaria is a member of the Borage family and, like other members of this family such as forget-me-not and comfrey, prefers moisture retentive soil and semi-shaded habitats.
There are a range of species naturally growing in the deciduous or mixed woodlands of Europe and Asia, with many crosses and hybrids now in cultivation. Some species are truly herbaceous, dying down completely in winter, whilst others are evergreen – but all are noted for their attractive foliage, from bold deep green, to strikingly patterned green and silver, whilst others are practically all silver.
Clusters of bell-like flowers vary from purple, violet or blue to shades of pink and red, or even white. Many will change from one colour to another between bud and open bloom, giving rise to a nicer common name of Soldiers and Sailors.
This colour change during development is actually due to the pH level within the flower changing after fertilisation.
As with many of our favourite cottage garden flowers, it has acquired many other localised and common names. So, in addition to those already mentioned, it is variously known as Adam and Eve, Lady’s Cowslip, Mary’s Tears, the Sage of Bethlehem and Spotted Dog.
Pulmonaria makes a wonderful spring flowering plant associated with Hellebores and spring bulbs, or with later flowering shrubs and perennials, such as Alchemilla, Hardy Fuchsias or Hostas.
Whilst stunning in bloom, they can occasionally look a bit tired later in the summer, particularly if it has been hot and dry. Just cut back the old foliage and they will bounce back better than before. Indeed, I like to pre-empt this by cutting them hard back after flowering to induce luxurious new foliage which will then last the full season.
We have some lovely clumps of Soldiers and Sailors (I prefer that common name to ‘lungwort’) in our wildlife borders, along with primroses and bluebells.
The bumble bees love it, as do the honey bees which have been really active this spring. The bee-keepers were here the other evening and the hives are already full of healthy brood. (Manea Beekeepers Club meets on the third Wednesday of the month – contact us for details).
Pulmonaria longifolia (pictured) is a lovely species which has attractive elongated spotted leaves and clusters of rich blue flowers in spring and well into the summer.
Pulmonaria ‘Stillingfleet Meg’ was introduced by the National Collection Holder for Pulmonaria and has heads of clear pink flowers that mature to a delightful blue between February and May.
n Manea School of Gardening (RHS Approved Centre). Bookings now being taken for RHS courses commencing September.
Plant sales Saturdays 10am to 4pm, including all the plants named above.