How to grow pulmonarias

Val Bourne ( 04 March 2016 )

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.

Pulmonaria foliage varies from plain-green, to all-silver to freckled and spotted. The linear shape of the leaves has earned the name of lungwort and they were thought to cure lung disease. They were grown in monastic gardens centuries ago for medicinal reasons. It was thought (under a 16th century system known as The Doctrine of Signatures) that the leaves resembled lungs. However there is no scientific evidence to support their medicinal use today.

Related: how to plant a woodland patch in a small garden.

Where to plant

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.

Deadheading pulmonarias

Pulmonarias are best deadheaded to discourage seedlings. They can be given a thorough haircut at the same time. Water them well and give them a slow-release fertiliser (like blood, fish and bone) within 10 days they will produce new foliage. Hard weather can make the leaves look ragged so a late-February or early March tidy up helps.

Dividing pulmonarias

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.

Related: how to grow daffodils.


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.

Did you know...?

Pulmonarias didn’t become popular as garden plants until Margery Fish began to enthuse about them in her books about East Lambrook Manor in Somerset circa 1960. In Cottage Garden Flowers Margery talks about leaves "as rough as a calf’s tongue" as she acknowledges that "they are a real pleasure in the spring garden." Margery Fish, a woman ahead of her time, also popularised hardy geraniums and astrantias.

In the 1960s Margery Fish may have had twenty or thirty to choose from at most, but now there are at least a hundred named forms on offer. 

The silvered foliage of 'Majesté' is a lovely feature in winter although the flowers are not as vivid as those of ‘Diana Clare’. Pulmonaria saccharata 'Leopard' is a brick-red form with very spattered foliage. Pulmonaria saccharata 'Dora Bielefeld' is a pale-pink with delicately spotted foliage. Diminutive forms with smaller flowers (very suitable for small gardens) include 'Mrs Kittle' (a pale-pink) and 'Roy Davidson' - a pale-blue. 'Trevi Fountain' is a wonderful cobalt-blue pulmonaria and this spotted one is a wonderful performer.

Visit our plants section for more guides to growing flowers, trees, shrubs and more.

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