Pulmonarias are perennials with lovely foliage all the year round and early flowers that you and the bees will love. They are great spring-flowering plants under deciduous shrubs or trees. They fit in nicely and they don’t argue with other spring flowers. In fact, they look great with snowdrops, crocus, daffodils and other narcissi, primroses, hellebores (especially plum ones) and lime-green euphorbia. Pulmonarias are easy to grow and easy to propagate. If you’re not growing them then you’re missing out!
Other names for pulmonarias
Pulmonaria officinalis has been growing in Britain since medieval times. The shape of the spotted leaves was thought to be similar to lungs and so gave rise to the name ‘lungwort’. It was used as a medicinal plant for lung problems such as asthma and bronchitis.
Other common names include Jerusalem cowslip and spotted dog. A number of pulmonarias have flowers that change from pink to blue, with both colours on the plant at the same time. This has given rise to the names Joseph & Mary, Adam & Eve and soldiers and sailors (thinking of the historical red uniform of soldiers and the blue uniform of sailors).
Pulmonarias are woodland plants and prefer cool, shady places with humus-rich soil. If they don’t grow somewhere damp they tend to get powdery mildew in summer.
The leaves of pulmonarias range from plain green through all silver to freckled and spotted.
The very early-flowering and vigorous pink P. rubra has plain green foliage.
Silver-leaved forms such as 'Diana Clare', which has long neat, silvered sword-shaped leaves and large violet-blue flowers, look good next to dark tree trunks.
‘Lewis Palmer’ is clump-forming with oval leaves spotted with greenish white.
Pulmonaria flowers can be blue, pink-and-blue, white or red.
The hue can be intense – the blue ones are particularly good with yellow and orange daffodils. They can be pale – these work well with darker plum hellebores and tulips but are also good on their own.
The flowers are a valuable source of early nectar and so the bees love them. In turn, this means that pulmonarias cross easily. Dead head them after flowering to keep your varieties true.
Some varieties are much better than others so choose carefully.
Pulmonaria officinalis has a fairly coarse leaf and pink and blue flowers. This plant is useful for growing in grass.
‘Majesté’ is very striking with pure silver leaves and early pink flowers changing to blue.
‘Sissinghurst White’ has intense white flowers above refined silver-spotted leaves, and is fantastic in shade. Other excellent white forms include P. officinalis ‘Alba’ and P. angustifolia ‘Alba’.
Many people think that ‘Blue Ensign’ is the best of the blue pulmonarias, with flowers as intensely blue as gentians. Its leaves are narrow and dark.
‘Opal’ is also stunning, with opalescent pale blue flowers and well spotted, narrow, dark green leaves.
Looking after your pulmonarias
Cut the leaves back after flowering to encourage fresh new growth and discourage mildew. If you are too late and the leaves are already infected, cut all the leaves off and water the plant well.
Pulmonarias are easy to propagate - watch this Gardeners' World video. Some, such as ‘Sissinghurst White’, will grow better with regular division.
Is there room for a pulmonaria in your garden?
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