Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) is a small, low-growing, rather hairy plant with clusters of small, tubular flowers in shades from blue to pink or white. The leaves range from almost heart-shaped to oval, and all but the lowest are blotched with white. Its official flowering period is from March to May but in a mild winter like this one it isn’t unusual to find it starting to open in February.
At St Nicks it only occurs in two locations – the Centre garden and one of the woodland paths beyond. As a non-native species, it would not have been deliberately planted on the reserve but is kept because it probably goes back to a time when the south-west corner was a garden, and it provides a food source for early-flying insects in an area where not a lot else is available.
The decorative leaves, early flowers and tolerance of shade make it a good plant for informal gardens: although it spreads by underground stems, it isn’t particularly invasive and isn’t difficult to look after. It escaped from apothecaries’ beds and gardens and has naturalised across much of the country.
Although its name is pure Anglo-Saxon, it is actually a native of Central and Eastern Europe, and was probably introduced to Britain as a medicinal plant some time before 1538 when the name is first found on record. According to an ancient medical theory known as the Doctrine of Signatures, valuable plants have characteristics that point to their potential use. In this case, the white spotted leaves are supposed to remind us of diseased lungs. The English and Botanical names both confirm what was thought to be on the tin: officinalis and wort both normally signal a plant with value as food, medicine or some other use; pulmonaria has its roots in the Latin for lung. Modern herbalists still use it for coughs, bronchitis and catarrh, but with caution because its active constituent is now known to be slightly toxic.
Various other unrelated plants have been called Lungwort in their time. Culpeper uses the name for a species of moss. Pulmonaria itself has various other names. Soldiers and sailors refers to the fact that pink and blue flowers can be found on the same plant. Jerusalem Cowslip is less obvious – the shape and size of the flowers might be a bit like cowslips, but sources don’t seem to explain why Jerusalem. Our Lady’s milk drops is a more fanciful name, and intriguing because it sounds as if the plant was starting to become well known round about the time Henry VIII decided to break off relations with Rome.
Pulmonaria is a member of the Boraginaceae family – a small but distinctive group of plants mostly with quite delicate blue and purple flowers on rather rough, hairy stems. As well as Borage, members include Forget-me-nots, Green Alkanet and Comfrey.