Pulmonaria -- more commonly known as lungwort -- only sounds like a revolting new malady. It's actually an unsung garden hero -- a spring-blooming, shade-loving perennial that hangs in there for months with beautiful silver-dappled foliage.
"Pulmonaria can really brighten up a dark area for a long period," notes Dan Heims, owner of the wholesale Terra Nova Nurseries in Canby, Ore.
In addition, its delicate little trumpet-like flowers can act as an effective foil for the bigger, more dramatic blooms of daffodils and tulips.
Daffodils, says Alan Summers, owner of Carroll Gardens in Westminster, "look beautiful coming up out of a tuft of pulmonaria. Then pulmonaria's later larger leaves hide where the dafs were."
The recent upsurge in pulmonaria popularity is due in part to new hybrids.
"A really big one right now is P. 'Trevi Fountain,' which we developed," notes Heims, who creates hybrids through tissue culture. "Also Pulmonaria mollis, a new species from Romania, that starts blooming around Christmas and continues through March."
But it's not just the trendiest varieties that have won hearts. For centuries, pulmonaria has been a fixture in European cottage gardens. It grows wild from southern France right up through Russia. The enduring popularity is evident in the roster of common names: cowslip; Bethlehem sage; Jerusalem sage; soldiers and sailors; boys and girls together; Mary and Joseph; Spotted Dog; and hundreds and thousands.
"That long list shows just how much pulmonaria is loved," says Summers.
Pulmonaria is most often known as lungwort because its spotted leaves resemble a diseased lung, a sign (according to the medieval Doctrine of Signatures) that God intended it to treat pulmonary ailments. But while it has been a physic herb for centuries, it's the plant's easy charm that has wowed fans.
"Pulmonaria naturalizes beautifully in a woodland or shade garden with epimediums and Solomon's seal and fairy bells," says Summers.
The list of available pulmonaria varieties is long -- more than thirty in catalogs, garden centers and online. Ranging in size from 8 inches to 1 1/2 feet tall and about as wide, most bloom here between the end of March and late May. Blooms wave in tiny clusters on fairly upright stems, like miniature magician's flowers, though the flowered stems of bright red P. 'Raspberry Splash' are stiffer with thicker clumps.
Though some pulmonaria bloom in a single color, many do a coat-of-many-colors number. For example, P. 'Trevi Fountain' has both cobalt blue and mauve pink flowers that look like tiny little morning glories. P. 'Mrs. Moon' is mauve, true pink and a magenta changing to blue as the blooms age. P. Augustifolia begins with pink buds that open to blue flowers. P. saccharata ("saccharata" for "sugar-spotted" leaves) has pink, blue and white blooms together.
There are also white-flowered varieties, among them, P. 'Ice Ballet', P. 'Alba', and P. 'Sissinghurst White,' named for the home of that inveterate gardener and eccentric, Vita Sackville-West. Pulmonaria rubra 'David Ward' has ruddy blooms in very early spring that wave over clumps of pale green variegated foliage. P. 'Johnson's Blue' has deep, clear blue flowers that stands 8" tall.
"People should keep an eye out for Augustifolia 'Azurea,' which is the truest blue and comes up with the snow drops," says Summers. "It doesn't turn pink the way a lot of them do."
For Maryland gardeners, Summers and Heims both recommend the longifolia types, like P. longifolia cavennensis, 'Trevi fountain' and P. 'Crawshay Chance.' Since longifolia's parents originated in southern France they are genetically better able to handle our hot, (usually sticky) Maryland summers.
Pulmonaria will thrive with little attention for years if they like where they are planted.
"The key is siting," says Summers. "They like shade but will take sun providing the soil is moist, and they are protected from hot mid-day sun."
"They will recover from drying out, but they prefer to have even moisture," adds Heims.
Pulmonaria can even deal with clay soil -- the bane of many Maryland gardeners -- though will do much better (as will everything else) if the clay's density is alleviated with organic soil amendments like leaves and compost and organic mulch. Shear them off to the ground after blooming and they return with larger leaves reminiscent of hosta that stay all summer. Slugs, which attack hosta, will usually leave pulmonaria alone.
Summers suggests planting pulmonaria in the foreground of a shade garden. They can easily be divided after five years to increase your stock or to share with friends. Or they can be left in place indefinitely.
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For a list of retail sources, try www.terranova nurseries.com.