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Pretty Pulmonaria Brightens Shady Spots
by Lesley Reynolds
May 27, 2007

Prairie gardeners are always on the hunt for attractive hardy perennials for shaded locations. Variegated plants are particularly appealing in brightening such areas, offering season-long colour even after the blooms fade. One of the most handsome perennials in this desirable group is pulmonaria, which is also given the rather unappealing common name, lungwort, due to the supposed resemblance of the spotted leaves to lungs. Pulmonaria officinalis was long regarded as an effective cure for pulmonary disorders, hence the botanical name.
Pulmonaria saccharata, or Bethlehem sage, is the hardiest and most commonly grown species on the prairies. Its slightly bristly foliage is splashed with white or silver spots and spreads to form broad clumps. In spring, pulmonaria produces clusters of pink buds that open to five-petalled purple-blue or red-violet tubular flowers that usually become bluer as they age. There are many fine cultivars with varied foliage and bloom colour. 'Argentea', 'British Sterling', and 'Janet Fisk', all have predominantly silver leaves and blue flowers. 'Mrs. Moon' has large silver splotches and blue flowers, while 'Pierre's Pure Pink' has lovely shell-pink flowers that do not change colour.
Pulmonaria longifolia, long-leaved lungwort, has slender pointed leaves spotted with silver and pink flower buds that open into rich blue flowers. 'Bertram Anderson' is a recommended cultivar.
Pulmonaria angustifolia, blue lungwort, is a vigorous species that will spread to make an excellent groundcover. It has dark green, unspotted leaves and pink flower buds maturing to blue or blue-violet flowers. 'Azurea', 'Johnson's Blue', 'Mawson's Blue', and 'Munstead Blue' are good cultivars.
New hybrids have recently expanded the selection of wonderful pulmonarias available to the gardener. 'Excalibur' boasts silver leaves with a dark green edge and rose-purple flowers; 'Roy Davidson' has sky-blue flowers and narrow silver-spotted leaves; and 'Little Star' is a compact variety with silver-spotted lance-shaped leaves and large cobalt blue flowers. Avid gardeners will find many others listed in specialty perennial catalogues.
Pulmonaria is easy to grow, rarely troubled by pests, and requires very little maintenance. Plant it in dappled or light shade in fertile, moist, well drained soil, adding compost or well rotted manure if the soil is poor. Add a layer of organic mulch such as shredded leaves or compost around but not touching the plant's crown.
Once established, pulmonaria will tolerate dry conditions, although the foliage will turn brown if plants are left dry for too long. Excessively dry conditions will also cause plants to be susceptible to powdery mildew. If this occurs remove affected leaves and dispose of them in the garbage, not the composter.
Deadhead spent flower stalks unless you wish the plant to self-sow. Pulmonaria cultivars will not come true from seed, but you may find some attractive seedlings nonetheless.
Pulmonaria do not require regular division, but should you wish to propagate more plants divide them after blooming has finished. Don't be alarmed if the plants wilt noticeably after division; they will soon recover if kept well watered and shaded from direct sun.

Landscape Uses

Plant pulmonaria near the front of lightly shaded perennial beds, or use it as an edging for paths. It can be mass-planted as a groundcover in woodland gardens or used in the company of primulas, fernleaf bleeding hearts (Dicentra formosa), hostas, ferns, and coral bells (Heuchera spp.). Clumps of pulmonaria may also be interplanted with spring flowering bulbs, including tulips, daffodils (Narcissus spp.), and grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum).

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