Pulmonaria: Team Player and Star Performer

Add some sparkle to your shade or woodland garden with pulmonaria (Boraginaceae). Also widely known by the less-than-appealing common name of lungwort, and by the names Bethlehem sage and cowslip, these perennials are most often recognized by their white- or silver-speckled leaves. The dots and/or splotches can be fairly crisp or can appear to bleed into the leaf. Some of the more than a dozen pulmonaria species don’t have spots. Some have hairy leaves, while others have smooth leaves. Leaf size, color and markings change through the year, too, making them fun to watch grow. 

Patio bed from livingroom window

Woodland garden by the patio with hostas and Pulmonaria. Click for larger image.

Great Companions for Hosta
The remarkable foliage of these members of the Borage family makes them great companions for hosta. In the patio bed pictured above, Sissinghurst White and Mrs. Moon pulmonaria meander between and behind the hostas from the bird bath to lawn, supplying continuity and a pleasing dark backdrop to show off the attributes of the specimens. When viewed from patio level, they do a great job of hiding the knees of the larger plants behind them.
Another pulmonaria is used in this bed as a specimen, Majeste. It is about halfway up the patio to the left of the bright green heucherella, another fine companion plant for the hosta bed. The Majeste’s cool, silvery green-tinged leaves harmonize with the frosty glaucus on the hosta Hadspen’s Blue a couple of plants below it, and the pale-blue green and white of the hosta El Nino further up the patio border, setting off the warm yellow greens and creamy ivories of the surrounding hostas.
Excalibur flowersPulmonaria are flowering while some spring ephermerals are still blooming, which helps give the bed interest until the hostas have opened up. Pulmonaria blossoms can be white, or shades of blue, violet, or pink. They can also have blossoms of more than one color on the same plant, such as the Excalibur flowers seen in the photo inset on the left.

At the Front of the Border, too

Pulmonarias also make great specimens. In the picture on the left, below, a P. longifolia is paired with the hosta Pineapple Upside-down Cake. They play well off each other having a similar leave shape and habit, but contrasting color and texture. In the right photo, a Raspberry Splash makes a nice specimen. Its leave shape is contrasts sharply with those of the hostas around it.

Pulmonaria and Hosta

Pulmonaria make great specimens. Here are two P. longifolia varieties with hostas.

Pulmonarias are quite reliable in Zones 4 to 7, with some rated for Zone 8, and are fully evergreen in the more moderate climes. They do well in relatively moist, fertile soil, and shady conditions. High heat and humidity can lead to a bout of powdery mildew from which they will usually bounce back once drier air returns. They are easy to divide and move in the spring or fall. Another advantage of these plants slow-growing groundcovers is they will fill in any space where they can find room and light, so like the hostas they do a good job of smothering weeds, reducing maintenance.

To maintain vitality, pulmonaria should be divided about every three to five years. They are not invasive, but if you don’t cut off their flower heads, you may find one or two pop up somewhere in your yard.