I returned to Oxford after a week in the north. Spring had arrived in my absence. In the hedgerows of Port Meadow the blackthorns were clouds of white blossom, whilst in the University Parks, carpets of purple crocus lined the paths. I went in search of my Pulmonaria and I found it at last, hiding under the skirts of shrubs in the borders, like shy chicks beneath a hen.
Pulmonaria officinalis, or common lungwort, is so named because the spotted leaves were said to resemble diseased lungs. In the era of sympathetic magic or the Doctrine of Signatures, depending on which side of the theological divide you found yourself, plants were believed to carry signs indicative of their usefulness. The cemeteries of Europe and beyond are littered with the results of this belief, but like many beliefs, it is highly resistant to contra-indications. It is still possible to buy a tincture of Pulmonaria officinalis for chest complaints. I pass no judgment on its efficacy.
Pulmonaria officinalis is a plant with an unusually large number of common names. Some, like Adam and Eve or Soldiers and Sailors seem to refer to the different coloured flowers borne on the same plant. I believe this is an expression of a pH change within the maturing flower from alkaline (pink) to acidic (blue), although this charming characteristic has been bred out in cultivars such as Sissinghurst White and Blue Ensign. Spotted Dog refers to the leaves, whilst most of the others have Christian associations, which I assume is indicative of its importance to the medieval monastic herbalists – note the officinalis again. An incomplete list includes, Jerusalem Sage, Bedlam (Bethlehem) Cowslip, Jerusalem Cowslip, Sage of Bethlehem, Mary’s Honeysuckle, Mary’s Tears, Lady’s Cowslip, and Lady’s Milk.
By whichever name it is known, it is most useful in the garden. It covers the ground nicely in shade and semi-shade and is hardy down to -20 Celsius. The lovely flowers in pink and blue, are a valuable early food-source for bees which start to fly once the thermometer rises above 6 degrees. The spotted leaves are pretty enough if one is not thinking of diseased lungs, although they are prone to powdery mildew in dry conditions. No matter, just cut them off and give the plant a good water, and new fresh leaves will grow.