Round Robin: Lungwort Watch

Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners


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CAPE BRETON ISLAND, Nova Scotia—My lungwort watch begins at the end of the first week of April. As my husband, Jigs, and I rush past the garden on the way to the barn to do the chores, I cast an eager eye over the decayed vegetation that edges the first planting I established here, soon after we moved to the old farm twenty-five years ago. One day during our second spring, a neighbor dropped by as I was carting away debris from a decades-old rock and woodpile. “What are y’doing there?” he asked. We had already acquired a reputation for being somewhat bizarre by having moved from the United States to this backwater, bringing with us our own Jersey cows.

“Making a garden,” I replied, waving my arm in an arc to indicate how large it would be, “all of flowers.” I knew nothing about raising flowers, but I thought they’d look nice there under the limbs of an old apple tree. I found lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) growing under an old lilac and moved a few clumps over into the new garden. They grew so well in the damp, heavy soil that I encouraged them to fill the whole area around the bed in a living frame.

It didn’t take long to discover that my garden “all of flowers” would be mostly a garden of hardy Old World herbs such as dame’s rocket, valerian, dropwort, and foxglove—in addition to the lungwort. I’m not sorry in the least because I have great affection for these plants. They’re all tough as nails, and all have beautiful flowers.

Last spring, the lungwort came through with its first few blooms by the second week of April. Here in the North Atlantic, where spring is like late winter farther south, that seems an incredible feat, but no matter how discouraging the conditions—cold temperatures, snow, frozen ground, and stiff winds—lungwort has never failed to launch its nearly-two-month flowering period by April 15.

In a few weeks, when the plants are in rich bloom, each cluster a mix of little pink, blue, violet, and white bells, the leaves, splashed with moons of varying sizes from base to tip, come into their own. Ancient authorities, believing that a plant advertises its uses, concluded that this one, with its spotted, lung-shaped leaves, must cure diseases of the lungs. Though I’ve never tried it as an herbal remedy, it certainly makes us feel better when it blooms.

Although finding the first hint of pink among the blackened mass of old lungwort foliage marks the beginning of spring for us, the most thrilling moment comes later in the season, usually when we’re not looking. That’s when a ruby-throated hummingbird visits the flowers—there are hundreds by May—to sip their sweet nectar. We become aware of the bird’s presence only as it departs, its wings making a sound between a whir and a buzz. We’re looking forward to the warming sun, the plentiful blooms, and that unforgettable first hummingbird.