Pulmonaria, lungwort

Time to celebrate another Very Good Garden Plant: pulmonaria, aka lungwort.

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Pulmonaria growing in my garden in Illinois

Named for the spotted leaves that, I suppose, resemble the alveoli in lung tissue, or perhaps because it was used as a folk remedy for chest ailments (don’t quote me on that, I’m just speculating!), lungwort is a tough plant that, so far as I can tell, will take just about any treatment you throw at it and look great in the bargain.

They’re small plants, topping out at maybe a foot tall and 18″ across. In a harsh winter they will hide underground; in a mild winter their foliage will persist. In early spring they throw out a few new leaves and a lot of flowering stalks topped with numerous tiny, bell-shaped flowers that change from pink to blue as they mature. There are varieties that range from very palest pink and blue to rich and electric.

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A pale pulmonaria in my garden in Illinois

After the flowers fade the stalks will droop. This is the time to cut them off–as well as any old foliage–before the plant puts out its new summer foliage. Then you just let it be, spotty in all its glory, with maybe a feed and a mulch to say ‘thank you’ until next year.

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The foliage of a pulmonaria start in early spring, in my garden in western Washington

They will tolerate a wide range of conditions. I grew them in my Zone 5 garden in Illinois and I grow them in my Zone 8 garden here in the Puget Sound area. I’ve grown them in full sun and mostly shade. Good soil and extremely poor root-ridden soil. So far as I can tell there are only two things that really bother them.

The first is to be too cold. Our last winter in Illinois there was a night that went down to -17F. That killed my pulmonaria (and several other things, too). The second is to get too dry. Then their leaves will lay flat and they’ll look pathetic, but a watering will bring them back to life.

The best thing about pulmonaria, though, is that it propagates from root cuttings. That means that if you’re on a tight budget, or if you’re just cheap like me, you really only need to buy (or be given) a single plant. After that you’re golden.

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Flowers on a pulmonaria start (transplanted the previous fall) in my garden in western Washington

You procure the plant in the spring and put it in a favorable place. Let it grow over the summer. In the fall, about a month before frost, dig it up and plant it somewhere else. Don’t fill in the hole left behind.

Next year, that hole will become a veritable cornucopia of pulmonaria starts, as each root fragment left behind sprouts into its own plant. Let them develop a healthy leaf or two, then plant them out where you want them. In a few weeks there will be more. In fact, it’ll be hard to ever fully get rid of them…but from my point of view, why would you want to?

I have a difficult border in my shade garden under a row of enormous black pines. I’m filling up the front of it with pulmonaria starts. In a year or two I’ll have a solid hedge of pink and blue flowers in the spring, and pretty spotted foliage all summer. Win.

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