How to Plant, Grow and Care For Lungwort
Looking to add some Lungwort to your garden? These beautiful perennials can make a wonderful shade garden addition, or low-growing ground cover plant. In this article, certified master gardener Laura Elsner shares all you need to know about growing Lungwort in your garden, including plant maintenance and care tips.
Pulmonaria, or lungwort, isn’t the star of a garden like a peony or rose. But this little perennial ground cover is a great building block to highlight and accent your garden centerpieces.
Although it’s not the showiest garden plant, lungwort has some beautiful features. It is one of the first perennials to bloom in early spring. It has pretty little pink bell-shaped flowers that turn purple as they mature.
Then, lovely large pointed leaves with irregular spots will emerge. The interesting foliage and beautiful flowers makes this often-overlooked perennial a real winner in my garden.
This perennial can grow in shady areas where other perennials cannot, due to its hardy nature. So let’s give lungwort a bit of love and attention. Here is how to add this pretty little perennial to your garden.
Lungwort Plant Overview
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Species 25 species, 7 common in garden use
Native area Europe, Western Asia
Hardiness Zone 3-9
Exposure Part sun to full shade
Plant Spacing 18-24″
Planting Depth To the crown
Watering requirements Moderate
Diseases Powdery mildew
Soil Type Moist, well-drained
Plant with Hostas, astilbe, coral bells
Bloom Color Red to blue
Lungwort drew the short straw when it came to its name. The suffix “wort” means plant, a term used to name plants with beneficial medical uses. It has lung in its name because it was historically used to treat ailments of the lungs.
The Latin/scientific name for lungwort is Pulmonaria, which also means of the lungs. Some say the irregular spots on the foliage resemble human breathing organs.
The beautiful spring flowers that turn pink to purple as they bloom gained this plant popularity as a garden perennial. The changing floral color is proven to attract more pollinators. Now it has a place in gardens all across the United States.
There are 25 species within the Pulmonaria genus. Among those species, 7 of them are typically found in our gardens. Pulmonaria officinalis is a common garden species. There is also Pulmonaria angustifolia, which is a narrow-leaf species. Pulmonaria longifolia is another narrow foliage species with frosted-colored spots.
Over the years, many different cultivars have been developed for gardens from these and other species. These are usually hybrids bred for their beautiful features. ‘Raspberry Frost’ and ‘Spot on’ are popular hybrid varieties. I will dig into more detail in the varieties section below.
Purchasing or dividing already existing plants are the best ways to obtain a lungwort plant. This herbaceous perennial is known to spread, so ask around neighbors and friends if they would be willing to share some of their established patches. Alternatively, purchase a specific variety at the local garden center or nursery.
You can purchase lungwort from garden centers or nurseries. You can usually find a friend or neighbor to share the common variety. But if you want a specialty variety, you will likely have to purchase it at your local garden center.
Look for a plant with healthy, robust foliage. Check the bottom to see if it is root bound. Avoid purchasing plants with a thick mat of roots emerging from the bottom of the pot.
Lungwort can be aggressive; you may need to dig it up and divide it to keep it in its place.
Dividing your lungwort is best done in the fall or spring, preferably after it blooms. But honestly, I’ve moved the plant at some not-so-ideal times, and it was fine.
Be more careful with specialty varieties, as these are more sensitive than the common variety. To divide them, wait until they finish blooming in the late summer or fall.
Planting lungwort is a straightforward process:
- Start by digging a hole two times as wide and deep as the plant’s root ball.
- Fill the hole with water and let it soak in.
- Optionally, throw in a handful of transplant fertilizer, bone, or blood meal.
- Next, if you purchased your lungwort from a garden center, remove it from its nursery pot.
- If the roots are tangled and growing in the shape of the pot, break them up with your fingers.
- Place the plant into the hole.
- Check that the plant’s crown (where the stems meet the root) should be at the soil line.
- You may need to fill the hole a bit to get it to the correct depth.
- Fill the rest of the hole with a mixture of the original soil and some organic matter.
- Press the plant in firmly.
- Give it a deep watering. You will need to water frequently until the plant establishes.
How to Grow
Lungwort is a relatively fuss-free perennial that can grow in various conditions. But if you want them to bloom regularly and have a long-lasting and healthy life, you must provide optimal growth conditions. Let’s look at how you can best provide for this plant species in your garden.
Lungwort thrives in part-sun to full-shade conditions. They will grow and creep slower if they are in more shade. If they are in too much sun, you will notice they will get crispy leaves.
This perennial is one of my top suggestions for planting under large, thick evergreen trees such as spruce trees. They can handle the dry shady conditions created by the tree.
Lungwort isn’t too fussy about soil. They prefer nice loose, loamy soil filled with organic matter that can drain freely, but they don’t demand it. Hostas, hydrangeas, brunnera, and other shady perennials you might pair your lungwort with also prefer these soil conditions.
However, I’ve also seen lungwort grow in heavy clay and dry sandy soil. If you have poor soil, choose the common variety. Any of the specialty hybrid varieties will usually require good-quality soil.
Established lungwort only needs additional water in times of drought. Established means it has been in the ground for a season. You must water it more often for the first year after planting your lungwort.
Lungwort likes evenly moist soil and can go in with other shade-loving perennials. It can also tolerate semi-dry conditions, like under a spruce tree. Supplemental water may be required if it is too dry.
The only condition lungwort will not tolerate is sitting in standing water. Make sure the soil can drain.
Climate and Temperature
Lungwort is a hardy perennial that grows in USDA zones 3-9. It prefers cool shady areas in the garden. While it is not considered a drought-tolerant plant, it does not usually require much extra water unless it is really dry in your area.
It is one of the first plants to emerge in spring. The exact bloom time depends on your location and the snow cover. In warmer areas, it is more of a semi-evergreen plant that never completely dies back.
I am not a huge advocate for fertilizing perennials and perennial beds. I think amending and taking care of your soil is a better way to promote the overall health of your plants and garden.
Great gardens start with great soil. Be sure to amend your soil with plenty of organic matter. This includes worm castings, sea soil, aged manure, or compost. This will give your garden all the nutrients and provide light, free-draining soil.
I top-dress my garden with organic matter every few years in the fall and apply organic liquid fertilizer in the spring. Compost tea or a kelp fertilizer are great options. Water your beds with a diluted mixture to keep everything growing beautifully.
If you want to go the fertilizer route, I recommend sprinkling a slow-release organic granular fertilizer in the spring or as directed.
Lungwort is a fairly low-maintenance plant. It will flower a profusion of dainty pink bell-shaped flowers that will turn purple. After that, it will leaf out its fuzzy pointed leaves.
As the summer wears on, I find my lungwort will show signs of powdery mildew. I will cut out all the bad-looking leaves, and new shoots will emerge. You might even get a second small flush of flowers.
In warmer climates, lungwort is considered a semi-evergreen perennial. This means it will not need to be cut down. You can snip out any dead or dying leaves. In colder climates, I cut down the plant in the fall for a tidier appearance, but it is unnecessary.
Make sure to wear gloves when handling lungwort. Their fuzzy leaves are irritating to the skin. The little pieces are a pain to pick out of your skin.
On its own, lungwort is easy to overlook. It’s a small leafy plant that blooms in the early spring. But when it is added to a perennial garden, it adds a whimsical touch of lushness.
Lungwort is a great filler plant to add to your garden. As a shorter plant, it should be used in the border and front of beds. Additionally, it can be used as a ground cover. It can also be planted underneath large trees where little else will grow.
Lungwort can be used in container plantings. Some of the newer varieties feature all sorts of funky foliage patterns. This makes it an interesting little filler plant in a container design.
I usually go to the common variety Pulmonaria officinalis when I think of lungwort. But many varieties have different lead shapes, sizes, and patterns. They also can have different flower colors.
Some varieties have an exotic look to them. They remind me of the houseplant Aglaonema. But they are simple, hardy, lungwort plants. Here are a few of my favorites:
‘Spot On’ is a popular hybrid variety. It is a nice compact mounding variety. It features small pointed leaves that are covered in frosted spots.
The flowers bloom a bright coral pink and eventually turn blue and purple. Because of its compact size, it is good for container planting and small gardens.
‘Trevi Fountain’ is similar to the common garden variety. It has medium-sized pointed leaves with silver spots. It blooms pink and purple in the early spring.
This variety tolerates heat and humidity better than other varieties. If this concerns you, consider planting ‘Trevi Fountain.’
‘Raspberry Frost’ is an interesting hybrid variety. It features narrow, pointed leaves with the trademark irregular spots of lungwort. But this variety also features a frosted margin that defines the pointed leaves.
The scarlet red flowers are the most notable difference between this variety and other cultivars. ‘Raspberry Frost’ looks great in containers and in the garden.
‘High Contrast’ is another heat and humidity-tolerant variety. It proves fairly resistant to powdery mildew. It is a compact mounding variety that features large pointed leaves. The high contrast comes in with the light silvery spots against the green foliage.
This variety has more silvery spots than green on it. To me, this variety almost resembles an Aglaonema houseplant. It’s very trendy and cool looking. Like most lungworts, it blooms pink flowers that fade to blue and purple in the early spring.
Like I said in the introduction, lungwort on its own isn’t going to win any awards or turn any heads the way a peony does. But, when it is mixed and matched with other perennials, it adds something special to your garden landscape. Here are a few of my favorite plants to plant with my Pulmonaria.
Hosta and lungwort are a classic pairing. They are both leafy marvels. Lungwort is up and blooming before your hostas fully emerge from the ground.
It’s a wonderful welcome to spring. The hostas’ big smooth round leaves contrast nicely to lungwort’s fuzzy pointed leaves with irregular spots. It looks lush, and lungwort is an inexpensive filler. They also pair excellently in containers.
Another shady foliage combination that I love is coral bells and lungwort. Various coral bell varieties’ ruffled and colorful foliage looks nice alongside Pulmonaria.
Coral bells bloom later in the season, which is the perfect complement to the early spring blooms of lungwort. Planting lungwort with coral bells is a great way to stagger blooms and use stunning foliage simultaneously.
Lacy astilbe foliage rising out of spotted pointed lungwort foliage is an eye-catching combination. The lungwort blooms in the early spring and then leafs out. Then the astilbe will bloom, and the lungwort will make a great filler plant.
Creeping Jenny isn’t for everyone; it is an invasive species in some areas. So be sure to check if planting in your area is OK. I love lungwort and golden creeping Jenny. The golden creeping Jenny will highlight all the irregular spots in the lungwort’s foliage.
Pests and Diseases
Lungwort is a fairly resilient and disease-resistant plant. It can have some issues with powdery mildew. Like most shade plants, slugs and snails can munch on their leaves.
Slugs and Snails
Lungwort grows great in damp shady areas of the garden. Unfortunately, this is where slugs and snails are found lurking through the foliage.
If you notice holey leaves and slime on the foliage, you may be dealing with slugs/snails. Lift the leaves to see if you can spot any slimy pests feasting on your lungwort. There are a few ways to deal with slugs and snails.
The first way is the least glamorous, but it works. That is to hand-pick the slugs off the foliage. This is best done in the early morning or late evening hours when the weather is cool, and they are out on the plants. Pick them off and dispose of them.
Create a Barrier
Another method is to create a barrier between your plants and the slugs/snails. You can use diatomaceous earth (available at garden centers). Sprinkle it around your plants. The sharp edges will cut up the slugs and snails and they will avoid the plants. This will have to be reapplied often throughout the season as it stops working well when it gets too wet.
Some people recommend crushed eggshells, but these don’t have the fine, razor-like micro-edges that diatomaceous earth has, so aren’t as effective against snails and slugs. However, bark fines have been shown to be less appealing for the soft, squishy bodies of slugs and snails to move across if you can’t find diatomaceous earth.
Traps and Bait
Trapping slugs and snails with shallow dishes of beer half-buried into the garden also works. You will have to check and refill the trays often. Ensure the lip of the dish is flush with the soil’s surface – this ensures the snail or slug can easily access the beer. Once it gets in to drink, it can’t easily exit and will drown.
Additionally, slug and snail bait works well. It can be purchased from garden centers and you sprinkle the pellets in the garden every couple of weeks. The slugs and snails just disappear. Be cautious of the ingredients if you have pets that like to nose around in your garden.
No matter what I do, I find that my lungwort gets a fine white dust coating. This is the dreaded powdery mildew disease. Lungwort blooms in spring and shoots out pretty, pointed leaves with irregular spots. But as the summer wears on, the leaves fade, and the mildew sets in.
When this happens, I take my clippers, cut all the damaged leaves off, and dispose of them. There will be a smaller flush of new leaves underneath that will regrow. You can spray the new leaves with a fungicide as a preventative measure. You can also spray the new leaves after they bloom to help prevent mildew.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I look after lungwort?
A: Lungwort is a fairly fuss-free perennial. Plant it in a location with part sun to full shade. Once established, it won’t require extra water except during dry spells. Cut it back in the fall or very early spring (before it flowers). I usually cut it back a second time in the late summer if it gets powdery mildew. It will flush up new leaves.
Is lungwort invasive?
A: Lungwort is aggressive, but not invasive. It spreads through its rhizomes. However, it doesn’t spread quickly and it won’t pop up randomly in your garden. It stays in its place and can easily be dug up and removed if necessary. I also find some of the specialty varieties are even less aggressive than the common variety.
How do you winterize lungwort?
A: For cold climate gardeners, I usually cut down lungwort in the fall. This makes it easier when spring rolls around and it starts to bloom. But it can also be cut back in spring. It doesn’t necessarily need to be cut back at all. I like cutting them back for a tidier-looking garden, but the old growth will eventually disappear into the ground.
If you are in a warmer zone, lungwort is a semi-evergreen perennial. You will only have to trim out the old and dead bits to keep it looking good.
What can I plant next to lungwort?
A: Lots of shade perennials are suitable to plant with lungwort. Hostas, hydrangeas, coral bells, astilbe, bleeding hearts, and ferns are a few of my favorite things to plant with lungwort.
Do I need to deadhead lungwort?
A: You won’t need to deadhead the flower from lungwort because they disappear under the foliage. But in the midsummer, I like to cut back the foliage. This isn’t necessary, but you’ll get a small flush of new fresh leaves and sometimes you’ll get a smaller flush of flowers.
While lungwort may never be the star of your garden, I hope I have convinced you that it deserves a spot in the supporting cast. Its beautiful, spotted foliage and bright bell-shaped flowers blooming in early spring make it an interesting perennial to add to your shade garden. It is a low-maintenance filler and ground cover that is reliable and easy to obtain.
Lungwort will rarely cause you problems. Many varieties can satisfy your need for unique foliage. Alternatively, there is the common variety that is vigorous and extremely hardy. Lungwort is versatile and beautiful. It is a perennial worth adding to your garden.