Lungwort (Pulmonaria) Plant Profile

Lungwort (Pulmonaria) 'Mrs. Moon'
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Lungwort is a very early spring blooming plant with a somewhat unfortunate common name. So named because the leaves are lung-shaped, lungwort was indeed once used medicinally to treat lung ailments. But today, this plant is known mostly as a perennial landscape flower that will bloom in the early spring before most other flowers. Many gardeners now refer it by its genus name, Pulmonaria. It's a woodland plant and prefers a shady, moist location.

There are several species within the Pulmonaria genus that are known as lungwort, but the varieties now most common in garden use are hybrids, with parents that likely include P. saccarata, P. angustifolia, P. longifolia, and P. offiicinalis.

Pulmonaria is a low growing plant, although the flower stalks can reach 18 inches. Bees love the blossoms. Its oval, pointed leaves can be solid green of varying intensity or variegated with spots or splashes of white. The leaves have a layer of fuzz on them and the color variations make them look like they were splashed with bleach.

Lungwort's season is early spring when most other plants are barely poking out of the ground. Its bell-shaped flowers are brilliant blue, pink, or white, and may change color as they mature. Similar to the behavior of hydrangeas, the flowers of Pulmonaria change color with shifts in soil pH.

Lungwort is normally planted from potted nursery plants in the springtime, though they can be planted or divided almost any time when the weather is cool. Available in a number of popular cultivars, Pulmonaria plants will form a nice ground -cover patch over a period of a few years.

Botanical Name Pulmonaria spp.
Common Name Pulmonaria, lungwort
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size Up to 14 inches tall; 18- to 24-inch spread
Sun Exposure Part shade to full shade
Soil Type Organically rich, moist soil
Soil pH 7 to 7.5 (neutral to slightly alkaline)
Bloom Time Early spring
Flower Color Brilliant blue, pink, and white
Hardiness Zones 4 to 8 (USDA)
Native Areas Widespread throughout Europe, western Asia
Drooping lungwort flowers on a fully grown plant
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Lungwort and hostas used in a border
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How to Grow Lungwort Plants

Finding the right location for lungwort can be a bit tricky. While they need the shade offered by overhead trees, they don't like to compete with trees for soil moisture. If you do plant them beneath a tree canopy, you will need to take care to water them regularly. They can do well along a fence, garden wall, or other structure that offers shade without compromising soil moisture. They can also work well planted among taller perennials that will offer shade as spring transitions to summer.

In the right location—moist but not soggy soil that is organically rich and a shady location—lungwort will spread nicely to form a ground cover. Without ideal circumstances, though, the plant may struggle.

Because they grow in moist conditions and low to the ground, Pulmonaria can be prone to mildew and slug and snail damage.

Light

Pulmonaria is best grown in a part-shade to full-shade location, but it can tolerate quite a bit of sun in the early spring. Keep in mind that most trees have not leafed out when lungwort blooms in early spring and the weather is still cool and damp. It's fine to grow lungwort in a spot that will eventually be shaded when the trees leaf out. Spring sun is not as strong as summer sun, so the leaves of other plants will protect the Pulmonaria once the sun gets stronger. Plants can tolerate more sun if they are kept moist.

Soil

Pulmonaria plants do well in soil with a pH in the neutral to alkaline range. More important is providing them with a well-draining soil that retains moisture just long enough for the roots to soak it up. These plants will struggle in soil that is too dry or too wet.

Water

Lungworts need only a modest amount of water, but should not be allowed to dry out completely. Because they grow in the shade, the soil tends to stay moist for longer than it does in harsh sun; but when the soil does dry out, water thoroughly to a depth of 10 to 12 inches. 

Temperature and Humidity

These plants will start growing as soon as all danger of frost has passed. They do not like hot and humid climates. The plants may wilt in periods of hot, humid weather and perk up again in fall.

Fertilizer

Lungworts don't require frequent or heavy fertilization. In the early spring, sprinkle a small amount of all-purpose garden fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, around each plant.

Propagating Pulmonaria

Since most modern Pulmonaria varieties are hybrids, they are not generally started from seed. Pulmonaria plants are slow to spread and do not require frequent division. You can divide a clump after flowering if you'd like to make more plants. 

Pruning

After flowering, the flower stalks turn brown and flop over, and the initial leaves also begin looking tattered. Removing the entire flower stalk and the older leaves will encourage the plant to rejuvenate and look fresh again. More de-leafing may be necessary if the summer weather is particularly hot or dry.

Varieties of Lungwort

  • Pulmonaria 'Excalibur': A clump former with silver leaves and long-lasting violet-blue flowers, this variety is mildew resistant.
  • P. officinalis 'Sissinghurst White': This has long, speckled leaves with pale pink buds that open to pure white.
  • Pulmonaria 'Spilled Milk': This hybrid has the familiar pink to blue flowers. Young leaves are tinged purple, changing to white as they age.
  • Pulmonaria ‘Roy Davidson’ has dark green leaves with silver-white spots; the flowers are pale blue.
  • Pulmonaria ‘Smokey Blue' has silvery spotted foliage with pink flowers that turn to blue. 

Landscape Uses

Lungwort plants are naturals for shady woodland gardens. The white-flowered varieties glow nicely against green foliage. You can also plant them in a sunny border, among later maturing perennials, for a shot of spring color. Pulmonaria can handle full sun in the spring, provided the leaves of taller, summer perennials provide shade for it later in the season.

This flower looks especially beautiful planted with the delicate foliage and soft pink flowers of fringed-leaf Dicentra, which blooms at about the same time. Another good place to plant them is under the shade of a large oak tree where they will thrive in this shady spot, provided you water regularly.