Sally Benson June 16, 2016
Photos: Sally Benson
The unfortunately named Pulmonaria— lungwort—is a beautiful, versatile, hardy plant whose bid for attention has seemed to go unnoticed in recent years. And but for a happy mistake, I might have ignored them, too. I have one bold plant of unknown origin that has sold me on the beauty and bravery of this low-growing, shade-loving selection.
My poor little plant has seen its share of challenges; it was lovingly cared for during the first few years of its life, and then was unceremoniously uprooted by landscape contractors—acting under my instructions—when a concrete patio was removed and replaced by pavers. I’d given the crew permission to trample and stomp, because most of the “garden” (and I use that term loosely) that surrounded the doomed patio was about to be disrupted anyway. I watched as the lungwort was yanked up by the crown and simply dropped at the base of a 50-plusyear- old elm (the reason for the patio replacement). Then I ignored it.
Six years later, the elm is suffering and, I believe, has only a year or two left. But the valiant little Pulmonaria is going strong. Despite my callous neglect, it managed to snuggle in next to the tree trunk and root itself, very comfortably taking hold and establishing to grow to a lovely, mature plant. I did nothing—truly, nothing—to encourage it.
Common name: Lungwort
Hardiness: Zones 3 to 8
Mature height: Average 12 inches
Mature spread: Average 24 inches
Landscape use: Exceptional and well-behaved groundcover; specimen plant in a mixed perennial garden; front of a border garden
Ornamental characteristics: Silver-mottled, light- to rich green, lanceolate foliage forms pleasing mounds; slowly spreading plant creates a reliable and attractive groundcover; in spring, buds and small, bell to trumpet-like early blooms emerge pink, changing through the next few weeks to varying stages of pink to coral to purple to blue
I’ve long forgotten the name of this particular lungwort, and although the blooms appear in a similar sequence of color as do the emerging blooms of ‘Raspberry Splash’, the mature flowers never settle into the rich, deep pink of that cultivar. Tiny buds appear in early to mid-April in the Chicagoland area—sometimes earlier in March— and the emerging flowers appear a deep, coral-pink. As the small, trumpet- like blooms mature, they turn lightly purple with a coral stripe, then to deeper blue (approaching a true cobalt) with a deeper purple stripe. For about two to three weeks, the plant is covered with a combination of coral, pink, purple and blue flowers until all of the blooms reach maturity and remain blue for a few more weeks. (Whatever the cultivar’s name, I would have selected it for blue flowers rather than pink.)
The foliage is a longer-lasting feature that provides a beautiful focal point until leaves begin to die back in late fall, although in a few of our milder winters, I’ve spotted their semi-evergreen glow through what little snow has accumulated. Leaves are lanceolate, light to deep green with splotches of silver that offer flashes of light in a shady garden. Basal leaves form a neat mound; on my plant, the coarsely hairy, basal leaves stretch only about 5 to 6 inches long by about 1.5 inches wide. The flowering stems hold smaller leaves that reach about 3 inches long by 1 inch wide. Other species sport broader, longer foliage.
It’s because of my little trouper that I adopted several more lungwort— primarily ‘Trevi Fountain’—for other semishady spots in the garden. These, like my little orphan, are supposed to be happiest in moist, well-drained, humus-rich soil, and I would heartily recommend such soil conditions. My soil is notoriously poor, however, and they perform reliably and beautifully. Those that are sited in areas that receive near full sun receive a bit more moisture to prevent them from withering; leaves can tend to crisp a bit and, if left without supplemental water, can fail. It’s a lesson hard-learned, but it’s small price to pay for happy lungworts.
Spreading slowly by rhizomes, Pulmonaria is well-behaved and does not outgrow its boundaries. If a planting does become overcrowded, plants can be divided (best done in the fall) and relocated. A little extra care at this time helps them to establish, but they don’t require much TLC.
My plants have experienced no insect problems, and although lungwort can, on occasion, be susceptible to powdery mildew, mine have performed admirably without blemish.
There are hundreds of varieties of Pulmonaria, each offering lovely leaf variegation and a rainbow of evolving bloom colors. For more information on selections for the Upper Midwest— and those may be applied to other regions—visit the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plant Evaluation program at: http://www.chicagobotanic.org/downloads/planteval_notes/no17_pulmonaria.pdf.