The Lungwort Herb: A Silver Renaissance

A new look for lungworts flowers.

| February/March 2003

  • All of the various lungworts are part of the family known as Boraginaceae, with leaves ranging in shape from long to wide, from very narrow to heart-shaped and may be as short in length as 7 inches or extend to almost 2 feet in length.
    Photo by Jerry Pavia
  • This silver beauty, known as ‘Excalibur’ is one of several cultivars with silver or white on its leaves. Other lungworts may have spots or be plain green.
    Photo by Rick Wetherbee
  • Lungworts vary in height from 6 to 12 inches and in flower color from pink to blue.
    Photo by Jerry Pavia
  • The spotted leaves of Pulmonaria longifolia are long and narrow and provide an interesting backdrop when dark-blue blossoms appear.
    Photo by Jerry Pavia
  • Each of the lungworts has markings so varied that based on the leaf shape and color, one might not appear to be even remotely related to another.
    Photo by Rick Wetherbee

I’ve long been enamored of lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis), delighting in its cheerful clusters of small pink and blue trumpet flowers bravely blowing in the cold northern wind, a herald of the new growing season ahead and source of the first nectar for returning hummingbirds. Its emerging gray- to cream-spotted, bristly, heart-shaped foliage looks good the entire growing season, and provides an attractive, carefree edging for perennial plantings. Who could ask for anything more?

But when we moved to our new home in the foothills of New York State’s Adirondack Mountains, I found that although lungwort was hardy enough for this Zone 4 climate, it didn’t thrive here.This fast-paced growing season can get hot and dry, and my common lungwort suffered in the light, fast-draining soil, even when planted in the shadiest conditions I could provide.

Then I learned that the spotting and blotching on lungworts’ leaves are an adaptation for survival in less than ideal conditions, as these blotches help prevent overheating. For this reason, I began looking for especially silvered types that might be more adaptable to a drier situation. What I discovered was an astonishing world of new, heavily silvered lungworts.

As if handcrafted by expert silversmiths, in infinitely varied markings, some are extravagantly spotted, others lavishly painted with a metallic sheen, still others combining silver overlay with splattered moons, on leaves of varying lengths and widths, some waved, all sporting showy flower clusters in designer shades from all white and ice blue to coral-raspberry. From humble cottage garden to high fashion, the ancient medicinal lungwort has shot up, almost overnight, to become a garden star, with silver varieties earning the highest accolades.

Form and function

As herb enthusiasts we can keep our heads by recalling lungwort’s history as a practical healing herb. Based on seventeenth-century thinking that a plant’s appearance suggested its curative powers, common lungwort earned a reputation for healing bronchial and lung problems because of its spotted (as if diseased) and roughly lung-shaped leaves.

Its role as a medicinal is preserved in the Latin genus name—“pulmonaria” referring to lung; the common name, “lungwort,” in modern parlance means “lung plant.” Contemporary herbalists claim that lungwort does indeed soothe bronchial complaints, while other authorities caution that preparations from the plant may actually damage lung tissue.

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