How to grow pulmonarias

Val Bourne

Pulmonarias combine nectar-rich, spring flowers and good foliage. Their popularity with bees gives them a propensity to cross freely and this has led to a plethora of varieties. So it's wise to choose carefully - because some are much better than others.

The Best Varieties

Silvered leaves

In recent years two silver-leaved varieties have appeared, 'Majeste' and 'Diana Clare'. 'Majeste' is a French variety dating from 1986 with frosted leaves colour-washed in pale green. It often reminds me of weathered copper roofs.

The flowers open pink before turning blue after pollination. This pink and blue combination has earned our native pulmonaria the common name of soldiers and sailors - because there are pink and blue flowers out together.

'Majeste' has been superseded by a newer, violet-blue flowered pulmonaria with pale-silvered leaves called 'Diana Clare'. This was spotted as a seedling at Cotswold Garden Flowers circa 1995 and named after Bob Brown’s wife. 'Diana Clare' is perhaps the best pulmonaria of all.

Spotted leaves

Pulmonarias are often called lungworts due to the spotted and dappled leaves of some varieties -they are said to resemble lungs and at one time it was thought that eating the leaves would cure lung ailments.

One of most neatly marked of all is an older cultivar from 1970 called P. saccharata 'Leopard'. It has red-pink flowers and leaves regularly spotted in silver-white dashes. It was discovered by the late plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas - growing in his own garden.

Good blue forms with spotted leaves include 'Trevi Fountain' ( Terra Nova 1999) a long-leaved pulmonaria with cobalt-blue flowers. This performs brilliantly in my garden. 'Lewis Palmer' is also a good performer with upward-facing clusters of violet-blue flowers.

The silver-grey 'Opal' (also called Ocupol) is stunning and long-lived. The narrow foliage is well spotted and this shows up well in the garden.

The diminutive 'Roy Davidson' has neat clusters of Cambridge blue flowers displayed next to stippled leaves. This plant is much stronger than the similar pink - 'Mrs Kittle'.

'Dora Beilefeld' is a good pink with neatly spotted green leaves. But bad weather can decimate this plant.

Plain green leaves

Not all pulmonarias have spotted leaves. Several species have plain-green foliage. These include the very early-flowering pink P. rubra. This plant spreads well and is better restricted to a wild garden as it will smother other plants.

The deep-blue flowers of 'Blue Ensign' rival the gentian for intensity and this dark-leaved pulmonaria, discovered as a seedling at Wisley in the early 1990s, is a stunner. The flowers are later than many and this plant is very compact and full of flower.

How to grow

Pulmonarias are classic woodlanders and they enjoy dappled shade and humus-rich soil. They often resent dry conditions and many will go down with mildew if they become water stressed. However in most gardens they make ideal spring-flowering plants underneath deciduous shrubs or trees.

  • After flowering, a good haircut, followed by a slow-release fertiliser (like blood, fish and bone) and a good watering will promote new leaves for summer.
  • Dead head after flowering to prevent lots of seedlings.
  • Divide after flowering if needed. Lift the plant and choose new bits of stem complete with roots. Discard old woody stems, and pot up the good pieces into soil-based John Innes number 3 compost mixed with grit. Plant out once fully rooted and keep watered.

Grow with

Use among other robust woodlanders and spring bulbs.

  • The blue-flowered forms highlight clear-yellows and Erythronium ‘Pagoda’ and yellow narcissi (like 'Jetfire') would make good companions.
  • The paler flower colours stand out well on their own and they could be used to break up dark and sultry hellebores and tulips.
  • The silver-leaved forms are excellent planted close to dark tree trunks - the shiny mahogany trunk of Prunus serrula for instance.

Where to buy

Long Acre Plants -

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