Delicate plants with a not-so-pretty name breathe life into the shade.
By Ann Wilson, Geneva, Illinois
One of the first harbingers of spring, shade-loving lungworts are dual-purpose plants valued both for their flowers and foliage. The herbaceous perennials appear shortly after the snow melts to put forth cheerfully charming blooms shaded in vibrant hues that quickly banish wintertime blues.
Clusters of blue, red, pink, white or purple funnel-shaped flowers rise from clumps of narrow leaves splashed with silver or white markings. Some lungwort species produce pink buds that successively open to blue, purple or violet blooms for a plant that presents (albeit briefly) a multicolored appearance.
After the flowers fade, gardeners should remove stems and wilted leaves to encourage a second flush of leaves. These new leaves form low-growing, strikingly marked mounds that make the plant a choice ground cover for woodland and shrub borders.
A native of the mountainous and sub-alpine regions of Europe and Asia, lungworts have happily adapted to America's climates and most are hardy in Zones 4 to 8. The easy-care, fast-growing plants naturalize and hybridize freely in shady to partly shaded sites by spreading their creeping rhizomes or by self-seeding.
An Herbal Remedy
Lungwort bears the botanical name Pulmonaria because people thought the blotches on the leaves made them resemble diseased lungs. Early healers created lungwort lotions, syrups, poultices and washes to treat pulmonary problems, including wheezing and coughs, jaundice, wounds and ulcers.
Modern herbalists employ Jerusalem sage (Pulmonaria officinalis) as a culinary and medicinal herb. The leaves are used to craft skin balms, astringents and tonics for treating respiratory and digestive problems. People also use dried lungwort leaves like a styptic pencil to stop blood flowing from a cut.
Although you can start lungworts from seed, the resulting plants don't always stay true to type. Experts recommend buying plants and placing them in partly shaded to fully shaded spots in spring or fall. Planting beds should be hummus-rich, moist, well drained and out of reach of the afternoon sun. During their first season of growth, new plants benefit from regular watering and an annual top-dressing of compost.
Lungworts are ideal companions for other shade-loving plants, such as hosta, bleeding heart and ferns. You can interplant them with spring bulbs to hide bulb plants' yellowing foliage or plant in drifts as ground covers. Larger cultivars make good specimen plants, both in borders and containers.
A Plethora of Choices
Of the 14 lungwort genera, roughly 12 are cultivated in gardens. Like coral bells (Heuchera), which people hybridize for leaf color, lungworts are hybridized to create an array of silvery- and snowy-patterned cultivars meant to brighten a garden's shadows. Generally, five lungwort species are available to the home gardener.
Pulmonaria angustifolia, commonly referred to as blue cowslip, boasts unspotted mid- to dark-green lance-shaped leaves and produces a profusion of bright-blue flowers on 12- by 18-inch mounded plants. Cultivars include Beth's Pink with deep coral-pink flowers.
Pulmonaria longifolia, also known as as longleaf lungwort, produces narrow, white-spotted 5-inch leaves in loose 10- by 18-inch clumps. Pink buds sometimes open to blue-shaded flowers. Cultivars include Raspberry Splash with deep-red blossoms, and Bertram Anderson, a longtime favorite with bright-blue flowers.
Pulmonaria officinalis, also called spotted dog, soldiers and sailors, and Jerusalem sage, boasts hairy, mid-green leaves with white spots on loose clumps measuring 10 by 18 inches. Plants produce pink flowers with shades to reddish violet and blue. Cultivars include Cambridge Blue with heart-shaped leaves and pale-blue flowers. White Wings (above left) bears pink-eyed white flowers.
Pulmonaria rubra, or red lungwort, has velvety, elliptical leaves and produces flowers ranging from brick-red to coral on plants measuring 10 by 18 inches. Cultivars include Redstart, an early bloomer with coral-red flowers. David Ward has variegated, sage-green leaves and coral-red flowers.
Pulmonaria saccharata, also called Bethlehem sage, is the most hybridized species. Saccharata refers to the plant's leaves, which look sugarcoated with splatters of silver, white or gray. They have violet or white blooms on plants 12 by 24 inches wide. Cultivars include Smokey Blue with medium to dark-blue flowers and grey-spotted foliage; Milky Way with pink flowers that fade to blue and heavily mottled leaves; and Mrs. Moon with silver-spotted foliage and blue flowers that open from pink buds.
Thanks to their reliability, beautiful blooms and interesting leaves, lungwort has become one of the brightest lights in the shade garden.