Pulmonaria - renewed joy!
My father was the last of the Victorians! He took up horticulture as a hobby when still a very young man in about 1915, in the days when Gertrude Jekylls revolutionary ideas about herbaceous gardening were still hot news. I have vivid memories of being beside him at the age of five or six whilst he tended and planted what seemed to me our huge herbaceous borders. My memories of the particular things he grew are still sharp and when I acquired my first garden I turned to many of the familiar things he had grown for my own plant arrangements, amongst which was a plant I loved as a child for its spotty leaves and which he called Lungwort. Tastes change and it must have been fashion I guess that eventually made me shun Pulmonaria for many years, feeling somehow that there were new things and new ideas to try instead. I well and truly gave them the cold shoulder.
It is my privilege to earn my living making English cottage style gardens for kind people who ask me and one beautiful spring morning only about five years ago my love of this plant returned when, whilst developing a garden for a client, I came upon a large clump of Pulmonaria in full flower tucked shyly at the back of a tired overgrown border in a little place where the dappled sunshine had discovered it beneath a canopy of deciduous shrubs. It transpired this was the variety 'Margery Fish', a lovely old variety and surely one of the most showy and reliable, so what better cultivar to have found to spark my interest again. The display this neglected plant made all by itself was utterly enchanting and I suddenly realised what I was missing. From that day my love of lungwort was rekindled!
It is amazing isnt it how you take a mild interest in something and once you get your eye in a whole new world awakens; new discoveries pop up everywhere, and so it was! Every plant catalogue, every friends garden I came across, more and more pulmonarias; some with the good old spotty leaves, some with frosted leaves; oh! how I coveted those and felt very miffed when the proud owner could not be persuaded to take a cutting for me. I was later to discover why... because you cant always do it can you. They wont have it!
At that stage I had still to discover how many delightful varieties and cultivars were available. P. angustifolia 'Blue Ensign', which goes completely dormant with me, never fails to bring spring joy as it returns. The small dark green leaves are almost brown as they emerge and the strong blue blooms make a welcome contrast with the lime green flowers of Helleborus foetidus in my border. You can tell Im no plant snob cant you; who else do you know that still grows H. foetidus? I do and I love it. Many other varieties have become favourites, not least P. 'Opal' which, viewed from a distance in full flower, has such an enchanting misty grey appearance, and Im sure we all grow P. 'Diana Clare' as a mainstay for its reliability and long flowering period, while P. 'Sissinghurst White' seeds freely here giving welcome extras. Good old P. rubra 'Redstart' still gives me a thrill too, because its delightful coral flowers appear so early. The ultimate challenge however was still to come!
What a captivating leaf ... pale green with a cream margin... I had to give it a try. You have guessed it, yes I had discovered P. rubra 'David Ward', the most tricky of all to get right. Failure after failure as the leaves turned brown round the edges but I felt compelled to keep trying if only because it is so darned difficult and clearly sets out to beat me. Absolutely no sunshine at all and definitely not too much moisture; woe betide you if you water potted cuttings from the top... but when you get it right its stunning and last year I finally cracked it! Perfection at last! The added bonus is that it is one of the few that does well in a pot and proves in general to be a valuable and coveted good doer for a sheltered sunless spot.
I find pulmonarias incredibly difficult to sell in the nursery and I never ask my customers whether they want Pulmonaria included in their planting schemes because I know they will most probably say no, but I slip one or two in quietly here and there, in the hope that some day when they are wandering they will be captivated, just as I was that delightful spring morning.
First published in the Pulmonaria Group Newsletter, May 2009
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 26.
© Copyright for this article: Sue Dawson
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.