a plant i’d order: pulmonaria rubra

Pulmonaria rubraSPRING, ALL PRETTY IN PASTELS, DOESN’T HAVE ENOUGH RED FOR ME, I suppose, which is why I like the red trillium or wakerobin, red tulips for cutting, and especially Pulmonaria rubra, the red-flowered lungwort. No fancy-pants, silver-splashed foliage like its more popular cousins, perhaps, but P. rubra is an ace of a plant, early and tough and ever-so-tolerant.

Just after or even as the hellebores begin, and overlapping them, P. rubra (Zones 5-8) is the next perennial to open in the garden here each year. It’s even early among the pulmonarias, actually (which more often have blue flowers, or pinky-purple). The snow has barely melted, and there it is: starting to bloom.

We’ve had many years together, and owing to the generous divisions it’s always happy to offer (and the self-sowns, too), P. rubra has become one of my standbys for massing in loose sheets in the shade under deciduous shrubs, where I want cover and a little early fun, but not a lot of extra work. It spreads happily but not aggressively, and is very easy to dig out.

The maintenance regimen includes only one hard cutback a year, after flowering. Lungwort will sulk and perhaps go temporarily dormant if the area gets terribly dry, and doesn’t want to be sodden, either, which will quickly rot off the plants.

P. rubra combines well with various bulbs; I have clumps of white Narcissus interplanted in one mass of it, and everyone seems perfectly happy together.

Pulmonaria rubra flowersThere are named cultivars of P. rubra, such as ‘Redstart,’ and even one with variegated, white-margined leaves called ‘David Ward.’ But to me that last one’s overkill; the flowers are the point with this gem, that extra-optimistic flash of red that admittedly burns out after a good long show to pinkish-red, the sign of warmer days to come.

My only question about P. rubra: Why isn’t it more widely available? Fortunately, some years Joy Creek Nursery in Oregon offers it  (labeled as ‘Redstart’) in their catalog. If I didn’t already have it, I know what I would do…order some.

  1. Linda says:

    Are you sure it’s zone 5? Every other pulmonaria I’ve seen or have is darned hardy in zone 3b/4a. I totally agree about needing color shock in the spring, orange azaleas, crimson and black tulips….

  2. Donna Baker says:

    I can’t wait to see more of your garden as it evolves throughout the spring and summer. One question ~ do you have to rake up all those leaves or do you leave them for mulch. We have tons of leaves to deal with each spring and have to rake them or else they are in my golfish pond or flower beds etc. They blow everywhere. I posted a pic of my potting shed I built with old windows that you might like to see.

  3. Ailsa says:

    I think it’s the insatiable quest for the newest, best cultivar sporting the most unusual foliage, flower colour or flowering period. The species almost inevitably get lost and abandoned. Good to remind us about them though; but you’re right, I couldn’t find it either at Heritage Perennials (a major source for plants here in Canada) — they only listed the cvs — and now I’m going to ask about it at the nursery this spring.

  4. Rosella says:

    Hi, there! New here, and have been lurking with much interest. I don’t know this perennial at all, and am very taken with it. It sounds like just what I am looking for to put in an area (zone 7) that I am in process of reclaiming from the English ivy I planted as a young and innocent gardener.

    Margaret, there is so much good information here and I am rapidly becoming a regular. Thanks!

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Rosella. All lurkers are welcome. If you want something else that I use a lot to really smother large areas, there is Geranium macrorrhizum (with typical hot pink flower or easier-on-the-eye white ones) as well to consider. The pulmonaria won’t make as dense a mat as the geranium but I use them both, along with many other things I ought to post about…thanks for reminding me. See you soon again.

  5. Gail says:

    A good question…It is a great color! You mentioned the native geranium…I have M macrorrhizum “Espresso”…with fantastic brownish foliage….It looks wonderful with the tiarellas and other woodland flowers. gail

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Garden Lily. Dig around in the links below the story and under plants in the navigation and you will probably find a few zillion things you cannot live without. :) See you soon again, I hope.

  6. Rosella says:

    Good morning! Margaret, I have g. macrorrhizum, the hot pink one, on a bank in front of the house where I put it several years ago to eliminate the impossible-to-mow grass that was there. It has been a wonderful groundcover, and I had been mulling the idea of using it after I get rid of the ivy. Thanks for the confirmation! Plans are beginning to come together now, and I do think I will include a clump (one, because it’s $10 plus shipping) of pulmonaria rubra.

  7. Vince says:

    Hi Margaret. What a pretty flower. Since you mention hellebores, I wonder if p. rubra would look good among my lenten rose hellebores?

  8. margaret says:

    Welcome, Vince. Yes, and obviously depending on what colors of hellebores…but come to think of it all of them will go just fine w/P. rubra. :) See you soon again.

  9. Dawn says:

    That’s a great one. For red in my early spring garden I have some Texas Scarlet flowering quince. It blooms just after the hellebores in my NC garden.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Dawn. You have just named one of my always-loved-but-never-grown plants: quince. Love red…and should get myself a quince! See you soon again.

  10. Ted says:

    Excellent! I’ll be looking out for it. Most of the uber variegated varieties seem fussy for me. The only lungwort I grow now is ‘Sissinghurt White’. Lightly spotted foliage, sweet white flowers and an easy disposition. I’d guess it’s earlier then rubra also – it beats my hellebores by a week. And I like to think of a bit of Vita Sackville-West in my garden.

  11. Ted says:

    Oh and regarding the geraniums – macrorrhizum is an excellent suggestion! A truly great plant. Just a point of clarification – I believe ‘Espresso’ is a cultivar of G. maculatum, the clump forming native species. G. macrorrhizum is not native and spreads with rhizomes.

  12. Elizabeth Talerman says:

    My entire shade garden, in Zone 5B just a few minutes from your lovely gardens, would be covered in P. rubra – the purple/blue flower variety with variegated leaves of green with white speckles. I’m tempted to offer plants to any who comes for a visit! I used to pull them out, thinking they were a pesky weed – but after reading your post again, and seeing the blanket of color in my spring beds, I am reminded that nature is one of the best garden designers and I will work with, rather than against her!

    1. GloriosaK says:

      Loving this group and my first post. Also would live to find the E. Talerman garden offering p. Rubra for the taking if still possible. Hope to get to your next open garden day Margaret. :-)

      1. margaret says:

        Hi, Gloriosa K. I don’t know about the availability of giveaway plants, sorry to say. Hope you can come to one of the Open Days (if I ever get to clean up the garden in time!).

  13. Carole says:

    I love ‘Raspberry Splash’ so tall and early,seeds all over the place.Hardy in my cold and still snowy garden in Nova Scotia. I of course do love them all,the first one I ever saw,I was told was ‘William and Mary’..it grows for me near the road that get salt and gravel thrown on it by the snow plough,under wild rose hedge.I do not have as much luck with the white flowered ones…

  14. Audrey Ostrom says:

    DO come to British Columbia, Canada where we continue to use kindly bamboo rakes in our gardens. Mine is many years old but I note other gardeners using them still and I don’t think our large Asian population brought them with them.


  15. Leah Kinder says:

    How long does it stay in flower? And, do you plant or already have planted among it something that blooms after it has finished blooming? Or, does the foliage stay attractive after blooming until frost?
    Do you think they would do well in a front yard under a magnolia tree that has walking room beneath it?

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