Round Robin: Pulmonarias

In the middle of winter, one gardener dreams of her spring garden plans.

| December/January 1997

Thinking of spring

Lansing, New York—Here I am feeling cozy in my writing room while the cold wind blows outside. Well, it blows inside too, to a degree, coming through the walls and around the windows of this old Victorian house. I’m snug enough, padded with wool ­longies, sweatshirt, sweater, and fluffy slippers, but I feel sorry for the Mexican salvias, tiny hibiscus, and fuchsia that I’m trying to overwinter in the bay windows. They’re as cheerful as the rosemary and geraniums as long as the sun shines, but on gray, windy days like this, I imagine that they’re wondering whether it’s worth trying to make it through another northern winter. Some will leave me, no doubt, but others will hang in there.

For dogged endurance through a winter indoors, I’d like to nominate Fuchsia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ for an award. All summer long, pots of this cultivar, with its lovely, dark green leaves with red undertones and long, firecracker red tubular flowers, decorate my hot-colored garden. Indoors, the plants, still in their pots, look sadder and shabbier as the winter passes. By May, when I set them outdoors again, they look hopeless, but after a few weeks in a shady spot, they’ve begun to put out fresh new leaves. I move the pots back into the garden, and there, even without fertilizer, the plants bloom gloriously all summer. (I haven’t tried to hold the same plants over for a third summer. Perhaps if I cut them back and potted them up in fresh soil, they’d go on as before.)

Have you noticed how many stunning new pulmonarias there are these days? The genus has come a long way from its humble beginnings when Pulmonaria officinalis, whose splotched leaves reminded some early physicians of diseased lungs, was used ineffectually to treat pulmonary disorders. Ordinary lungwort is a nice enough plant, but it is a bit too greedy for territory, and it mildews in late summer. Now that the breeders have been working with other pulmonaria species with such splendid results, I am replacing the old colonies of P. officinalis in my woods garden with more striking, nonaggressive and nonmildewy cultivars.

I’m not evicting the old P. angustifolia ‘Azurea’ with slender unspotted leaves, which make pools of blue in early spring, and P. montana ‘Salmon Glow’ is still popping up here and there, but because its small reddish blossoms (“brick red”, says one reference book) don’t redeem the effect of its large, coarse yellow-green leaves, I tolerate it but don’t really enjoy it. I’ve also kept clumps of P. saccharata ‘Mrs Moon’ and what appears to be a white-flowered form of the same species.

As for the new cultivars, ‘Roy Davidson’ is a great joy: its long, pointed, white-flecked leaves form a large rosette that is effective in a shade garden even after its pink and blue blossoms are gone. P. saccharata and P. longifolia are its parents. Another descendant of P. longifolia is ‘Bertram Anderson’, whose extremely narrow speckled leaves give it an odd, attenuated look. Silver-splotched ‘Excalibur’ and ‘Spilled Milk’ are too new in my garden to judge ­fairly, but ‘Argentea’ is impressive, lighting up the woods with leaves of silver embroidered with a little green around the edges. It’s lovely planted beside Japanese painted fern, with maidenhair fern behind it.

Of all my pulmonarias, the one I’d least like to lose is ‘Benediction’. Though its slender, dark green, long-petioled leaves faintly splotched with paler green aren’t much for looks and its low rosette, 2 feet or more in diameter, is neat but not flashy during the summer, in spring it sends out countless clusters of the most celestial, vibrant blue flowers you’ve ever seen—a blue that is indeed a benediction. 



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