Friday, 15 April 2011

Lungworts...

The longer a plant has been in cultivation, the more common names it collects along the way. This week’s focus is on ‘Pulmonaria,’ and this lovely spring flowering, cottage garden favourite has picked up many through the years...




It is most widely, but perhaps least attractively known as ‘Lungwort.’ The broad hairy leaves are covered with grey markings, and apparently look just like pock marked, diseased lungs- urgh! If only someone centuries ago had seen them in a more enthusiastic light. Perhaps they would have been called ‘Silver Rain’ for their shiny spotting. But, there was then a twisted logic in the name they were given...
In ages past when the most popular cure-all was the removal of ‘bad-blood’ by the application of leeches, there were also herbal alternatives, potions based on sympathetic magic. Here, if part of a plant resembled a diseased organ, it was obviously put on earth as the cure. Thus leaves that looked like sick lungs were thought to fix all manner of chest problems. Science certainly didn’t come into it back then. We know now treatment based on Lungwort would do more harm than good!
One of its other old names, ‘Jerusalem Cowslip’ alludes to a bible based tradition. Apparently the white spotting on the leaves commemorates an incident where the Virgin Mary accidentally splashed a few drops of breast milk upon them. In fact, the silver markings are air pockets beneath the leaf surface to help keep it cool.
The plants are also sometimes called ‘Soldiers and Sailors,’ this time in reference to the flower colour. Unusually and rather attractively, the small tubular flowers open from the bud in shades of red, then after a few days change to blue. Cunningly reflecting armed force uniforms of an earlier era!

Shady conditions suit them best and they are happiest where the ground does not dry out too much in summer. Their only fault is a tendency to mildew in drought conditions. The remedy for that though is easy enough. Just cut everything off and water well. Fresh, clean leaves will soon shoot through.
Whatever you call them, these ‘Pulmonarias’ make for superb spring flowering ground cover plants. Spreading out slowly, they lift and light up dark areas with their pretty flowers and silver splashed foliage.

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