Peter Dowdall is all for warding off evil, discovering witches, or for a spectacular display — what a pick!
What’s in a name? Well in the case of Pulmonaria nearly everything actually.
Pulmonaria is a pretty little herbaceous perennial which flowers early in the spring and continues throughout the season.
It’s a valuable addition to the garden for just that reason —it flowers early when not much else has started to bring colour to the party, but it’s not purely for aesthetic reasons that early flowers are important.
More importantly these cute little flowers which tend to start off pink in bud and mostly open up as inky blue in flower, offer very welcome food for the solitary bees foraging for nectar early in the season.
Pulmonaria are not scented, but in the case of this plant the name says a lot — the common name is lungwort and tells us a lot about this plant.
The spotted leaves resemble the lining of a lung in appearance and thus it was believed that the plant would be useful in the treatment of lung ailments.
Assuming plants to be medically important to whatever part of the body they resembled was common during the early 1600s and this theory, known as the Doctrine of Signatures was widely accepted.
Many of the theories have since been discredited, but lungwort has been proven to have substantial antioxidant properties and to benefit overall lung health.
A quick search online in 2017 will bring up pages of herbal remedies and articles on lungwort as a treatment for many respiratory ailments including coughs, colds and even asthma and bronchitis.
The botanical name Pulmonaria comes from the Latin word Pulmo meaning lungs.
Often the answer is in front of our eyes if we just stop and look.
If you look up how to use it, you will see a comprehensive list of treatments but is most often used in tincture and tea form and as a poultice, (of the leaves), to treat cuts and bruises.
Let me stress I’m no medic and I would never recommend taking any medicine without correct medical consultation and that advice would extend to herbal remedies.
Just because a medicine comes from the garden doesn’t make it any less important. In fact, many if not most modern medicines come from the garden in pure form or as a synthesized active ingredient.
This is a plant steeped in tradition, folklore and magic. It was one ingredient of a formula used to see if somebody was a witch or not, a recipe we could still do with nowadays don’t you think?
It was also worn on the body to ward off evil, again something which we could all still benefit from.
However, I grow it purely for its horticultural merits, though if it keeps my garden witch and evil-free then I’ll certainly take that as an added benefit.
Most of the varieties are blue and the best blue variety is probably ‘Blue Ensign’ which produces masses of electric, steely blue flowers.
‘Blakes Silver’ is a pink flowering variety which is attractive for its metallic silvery leaves.
The foliage does get tatty and in much the same way as I would recommend removing the foliage from hellebores and alliums before flowering to show off the flowers to their best I would do the same with the Pulmonarias, remove the outer leaves either at the end of the year or beginning of the new season but certainly before the flowers start to emerge.
My favourite variety of all is one called Pulmonaria rubra ‘David Ward’. Beautifully variegated leaves of pale green with a cream-coloured margin surround flowers of coral/pink during the spring and early summer.
I have found this variety to be a bit difficult to establish and unfortunately it’s not the most readily available either.
However, do persevere with the search if you like variegated foliage.
If you do manage to source it then position it somewhere nicely shaded so that the full sun doesn’t burn the silvery leaves — and somewhere moist without being waterlogged.
Where I did manage to get a clump well established was at the edge of a woodland planting in a position which was getting some sunshine, a low amount but not full shade and also very rich in humus and leaf mould.
The textbooks will say to grow in an alkaline soil but where mine is growing is definitely on the lower side of neutral. That’s gardening for you, nearly always trial and error.
Work for the weekend
There’s often a lot of confusion around how and when to prune Clematis with some varieties flowering on this year’s growth and others flowering on last year’s growth.
What you need to know is that now is the time to cut back Clematises that will flower in the summer.
The montana types which will start to flower in March and April should be left well alone as they are already in bud and pruning them now will result in no flowers this spring.
As regards how to do it — simply remove stems and growth where you don’t want it and thin out overcrowded stems which will in turn improve the quality of individual blooms.
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