What are Pulmonarias?

Mary McMahon

Pulmonarias or lungworts are perennial plants which are famous for their foliage and early Spring blooming. In addition to growing wild in many parts of the world, Pulmonarias are also cultivated in gardens, especially in Europe and parts of North America. These plants come in a dizzying array of cultivars and species with a wide assortment of colors and foliage patterns to choose from, and they are easy to care for, making them popular choices with some gardeners.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

In addition to being known as lungworts, Pulmonarias are also called soldiers and sailors or spotted dogs, depending on the cultivar. The common name lungwort is a reference to the appearance of the leaves, which Medieval Europeans thought resembled diseased lungs; in the tradition of sympathetic medicine, lungwort was often prescribed for various respiratory conditions. The Latin name for the genus, Pulmonaria, comes from the Latin word for “lung.” Wort, incidentally, is the Saxon word for “plant.”

These plants classically grow low to the ground, forming rosettes of variously shaped leaves which are typically covered in fine hair. The leaves may be solid green or stippled with color, depending on the cultivar, and the white, blue, or pink flowers grow on long, hairy stalks which emerge in the early Spring. The leaves will persist year round, and the plants spread quickly, making them an excellent choice for lush green groundcover. If your garden starts to feel dull in the winter, lungworts can help liven it up by creating a bright spot of green foliage.

Recommended USDA zones for lungworts vary, depending on the species and cultivar, but generally they are hardy in zones three through eight. They prefer partial shade and soil which retains water well; Pulmonarias are often planted in woodland gardens for this very reason. As a general rule, they don't require much care, although if the leaves start to brown in the summer, they benefit from a bit of mulch. Pulmonarias should also be dug up and divided every three years or so.

There are so many cultivars of this plant with such different looks that you may want to purchase mature plants from a nursery, preferably in the spring so that you know what color the flowers will be. Be aware that Pulmonarias also hybridize very readily, so it is a good idea to deadhead the plants as soon as they are done blooming, to prevent the rise of mysterious hybrids.

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