By Matt Gibson
Pulmonaria, also known unfortunately as Lungwort, is much prettier than it sounds, especially when in bloom. The name Lungwort was given to this beautiful shady perennial, because its leaves were thought to resemble the human lung. Because of this, it was used medicinally to treat lung conditions.
Though it is no longer used medicinally, and it is normally grown as a colorful low-lying flare in modern flower gardens, the name is still in use, probably affecting its popularity amongst gardeners around the world. Gardeners who have grown pulmonaria, however, have grown to love the hardy flower as a slowly spreading ground cover, and even under trees where other plants find it harder to thrive, the pulmonaria performs wonderfully.
Also known as spotted dog (for the white spots that appear on its leaves), soldiers and sailors, Bethlehem sage and Jerusalem cowslip, the pulmonaria plant is actually very hardy when given the proper growing conditions. Once it’s established, you can count on many years of luscious greens and gorgeous blossoms.
Varieties of Pulmonaria
The award-winning ‘Blue Ensign’ variety of pulmonaria is a favorite of many gardens. Clusters of bright, showy sapphire bloom atop large masses of compact foliage, this early-blooming spring favorite evergreens in mild winter climate areas and is a perfect choice for shady gardens.
Another award winning hybrid of Pulmonaria is the Margaery Fish variety. Both of these varieties are recipients of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. The Margaery Fish Lungwort blooms emerge with bright pink and magenta hues that slowly turn to deeper tones of blue and purple as the plant gets older.
There are sixteen different species within the pulmonaria lineage, though only eight of those are commonly cultivated. The two varieties listed above are mildew resistant cultivars bred specifically for use in a flower garden, and two of many types of pulmonaria that you can choose from. Different types of pulmonaria do better in different zones and regions, and there is also a wide array of colors to choose from when selecting lungwort varieties, though most varieties do tend to change color over time.
A few other varieties that are popular amongst gardeners are pulmonaria ‘Excalibur,’ which is a mildew resistant cultivar with silver leaves and thick clusters of violet-blue flowers, pulmonaria ‘spilled milk,’ whose young blooms are bright pink and turn to blue as the plant ages. The ‘spilled milk,’ variety also has purple tinged foliage that turn white as the plant gets older.
Another popular hybrid from the pulmonaria officinalis species, titled, ‘Sissinghurst White,’ is framed with long, dark green leaves with silver specks and pale pink blossoms that open to pure white centers. There are many other splendid options of pulmonaria to choose from, so feel free to do some research and find the perfect cultivars for your dream garden. The five listed here are just a few choice picks that have gained popularity in modern gardening circles.
Growing Conditions for Pulmonaria
Lungwort is not a picky plant, contrary to popular belief, though it does have its preferences. If given stable growing conditions, however, pulmonaria is a relatively care-free flower in many climates. Hardy in USDA zones 4-8, pulmonaria prefers full to partial shade. It can survive in less shade as long as its soil stays moist, but not soggy.
If given ample shade and water in a well draining area, you should see plants growing to just over a foot tall with bases up to a foot and a half wide. Most pulmonaria enjoy a soil ranging from neutral to slightly alkaline, in the 7.0 to 7.5 range. More importantly, a soil that retains water just long enough for their active and shallow root systems to absorb what they need.
Pulmonaria only needs a light fertilizer once per year. Most varieties will self-seed on their own, and spread out to your gardens barriers slowly, but naturally, making it a great ground cover for garden beds with taller standouts, or a subtle liner for pathways.
Where To Plant Pulmonaria
As mentioned above, pulmonaria is a great choice for ground covers, and as pathway liners. Another place where pulmonaria thrive is underneath trees, which is nice because many flowers struggle to survive in locations like these, as they have trouble competing for water when paired against the thirsty trees.
Pulmonaria roots drink up water quickly, before it drains to the depths in which the tree can drink, making it a great flower to grow underneath trees. In fact, pulmonaria flowers are one of the very few flowers that are immune to the effects of black walnut trees, and grow plentiful and pleasantly beneath their shade. Just keep in mind when picking out the perfect spot for your pulmonaria, you need plenty of shade, and moist, well-draining soil, and the rest should take care of itself.
Pulmonaria is also a great choice for banks and slopes. They look especially good in mass plantings. In a well moistened spot, you can even give them a place in a sunny border area, surrounding it in later blooming perennials.[https://www.gardeningchannel.com/6drought-tolerant-perennials/] This way, your lungwort will offer up a nice splash of color during the spring, and then it can fall back and bask in the shade of its taller growing neighbors in the later seasons when it needs the shade the most.
How To Plant Pulmonaria
Most pulmonaria plants are hybrids, so growing from seed is not recommended. Plant your seedlings in partial to full shade in a humus rich, well-drained woodland soil type. Add compost or peat humus to loosen soil if needed to keep soil light and airy, and don’t pack the soil in after planting. Make at proper depth and sure no crowns or roots or showing before watering or feeding.
Plant pulmonaria seedlings 1” deep and mulch topsoil 1” to 2” deep for optimal results. Space out the seedlings 15-18,” or maybe more, depending on the variety you chose. Ensure that the crown of each plant is about 1” below soil level and mulch topsoil after planting. If the crowns ever become exposed, pull the plants out and replant them deeper immediately. Propagate using division during the fall, or right after flowering. You can also propagate cultivars by root cuttings. Take 2-3” long cuttings and plant vertically with the crown side up.
Care for Pulmonaria
Aside from watering during droughts or dry spells, no extensive care is needed to assure success with pulmonaria. Flower stalks will turn brown and flop over after flowering, and older leaves will begin to look tattered and ragged. Remove entire stalk and older leaves to promote new growth. This will also rejuvenate the plant and make it look fresh again.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Pulmonaria
Pulmonaria is generally pest and disease free, however, there have been cases of powdery mildew disease troubling the plant in cases where overly dry soil, or soggy soil with improper drainage is an issue. Cut the affected plants down to the ground and the mildewed leaves you remove will soon be replaced with healthy new foliage. Another treatment option would be to use a preventative fungicide spray after the plants have finished blooming. This way, you still retain some healthy plant life instead of practically starting from scratch. Either way, be sure to mulch and add in compost or peat humus to help aerate the topsoil to prevent recurrence if powdery mildew shows its head.
Companion Planting with Pulmonaria
A great supporting flower to assist with the splash of spring color is Dicentra, whose soft pink fringed leaf blooms come out around the same time as the clusters of the lungwort plant. and together, they make a wonderful pairing. Other good companions to pulmonaria include ornamental grasses such as carex and Hakone grass, who love hanging out in the shade, like lungwort.
Lungwort is also been known to shine next to ferns, bleeding hearts, foam flowers, and hostas. Also, as mentioned above, pulmonaria makes a great companion to trees when planted at the base. The trees provide ample shade for the low lying flower, and pulmonaria is one of the few flowers that don’t find themselves in competition with thirsty trees, for ample water to survive.
Want to Learn More About Pulmonaria?
Watch this video for tips and tidbits on how to grow pulmonaria (blue ensign):
Check out this video highlighting pulmonaria as a great choice for shady perennials:
And be sure to take 21 seconds to watch this beautiful time lapse of pulmonaria blooming: