Friday 13 December 2019

In the garden: The shades of spring to come

Pulmonaria puts on a brilliant colour show from early spring onwards
Pulmonaria puts on a brilliant colour show from early spring onwards

Gerry Daly

Pulmonaria is an early-to-flower herbaceous plant that brings a welcome touch of colour from early spring onwards. It was once known in some parts of the country as 'soldiers-and-sailors', an old name for lungwort or pulmonaria, which is very descriptive of the red and blue flowers that appear on most kinds.

Typically, the flowers start out as red buds, opening red-pink and then fading to blue as the flower ages. The name 'lungwort' is a reference to its use in herbal medicine in the treatment of disorders of the lungs. There was a theory in medieval times that if a plant resembled a part of the human body, it would be good for curing that part. The spotted leaves of the lungwort were thought to resemble the open vessels of the lungs and so the lungwort was used for treating bronchitis and other lung conditions. Wort is an old English word for a plant. The botanical name, pulmonaria, also reflects the link with the lungs, 'pulmo' being the Latin for lung.

At a time of year when the number of plants flowering is very small, pulmonaria begins by tentatively producing a few blossoms. These are pushed out early, after a mild spell, at the end of short shoots and before the leaves expand much. Later, the leaves catch up, the stems extend and the tips of the shoots carry clusters of nodding flowers. The little blue or reddish flowers of lungwort are a real delight. The reason that lungwort starts growing so early is due to its natural habitat in mountainous areas of southern and central Europe, where it grows in alpine meadows and open woodland.

Pulmonaria is a very good, low-growing, ground cover plant for the front of beds or borders and between shrubs. Its dense, silver-spotted leaves make a solid cover against weeds. It tolerates a degree of shade and likes fairly moist soil as it gets mildewed if it is grown in dry soil, although the mildew does not stop it growing. There are quite a few species and selections of pulmonaria, mostly chosen for their flower size or good colouring.

The species pulmonaria officinalis has typical red and blue flowers. 'Blue Ensign' is a good blue variety with a touch of purple. 'Bowle's Red' is a red-flowered form. 'Argentea' has grey leaves and 'Silver Bouquet' has leaves that are almost completely silver and red and blue flowers.

'Mawson's Blue' has dark-blue flowers and 'Sissinghurst White' has white flowers and white, lightly spotted leaves. After flowering, the flower stems wither back and the leaves extend fully helping to keep weeds down.

Usually, the places where it has been planted with spring bulbs tend to fill with shade as trees and shrubs develop their full canopy overhead and the pulmonaria fades into the background for the summer.

Q My box hedge, which surrounds the vegetable patch, has recently been infected with a bad case of blight. I am currently treating it and hoping for the best. However, I am now beginning to wonder if it is safe to grow potatoes in this area. I realise the two blights are caused by different fungi but am concerned that it will increase the likelihood of blight in the potato crop. Could you please advise? J Taggart, by email

A Box blight will have no effect on potatoes or potato blight, except that damp air promotes both diseases. The roots of the box hedging are more likely to have an effect on the growth of vegetables, including potatoes.

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