Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, the lungwort is in full flower in several locations around my ‘territory’ at the moment, and the early-emerging queen bumblebees are delighted. And, actually, so am I, for this is one of my favourite plants. I love the jaguar-spotted leaves – in one story, Mary is supposed to have been a little careless while feeding the baby Jesus, hence one of the alternative names for lungwort, ‘Mary-spilt-the-milk. I also love the way that the flowers start off pink and gradually move through lilac to blue (hence ‘Jacob’s Coat’). Plus, the plant is a member of the Boragaceae or borage family, which includes the exquisite blue borage itself, and good old ‘bone-knit’, comfrey. All of these are medicinal plants of great antiquity, and are also all beloved by pollinators. You can’t go far wrong with a borage.
The word ‘officinalis’ in a plant’s species name means that this was the ‘official’ cure for a condition. The combination of the shape of the leaves and those white spots was thought to be an indication that the plant could be used to cure spots on the lungs, catarrh, and coughs. The slightly hairy leaves are mucilaginous, which implied that they would soothe such conditions, and the usual treatment was to use the leaves in a tea. These days their primary use seems to be as a novel, early-flowering plant in a woodland garden.
The way that the flowers change colour is certainly very fetching, and I can’t help thinking how lovely they would be in a child’s garden. But what makes the flowers change colour as they grow older? A pigment in the petals changes from acidic (pink) to alkaline (blue) during the plant’s life, and this may occur once the plant is pollinated, or may simply be a result of age. The younger pink flowers have much more nectar and pollen than the blue ones. Does the colour act as a signal to the bees, telling them which plants are worth feeding from? Several studies have indicated that this might be the case. Retaining the blue flowers also means that the overall display is much more visible from a distance than if the older flowers just dropped off.
The caterpillars of Ethmia pusiella feed only on lungwort, or its close relative the gromwell. As an adult, the moth reminds me of one of those appaloosa horses that popped up in the cowboy movies of my youth.
Below we see two colour forms of the moth and an upwardly-mobile caterpillar feeding on gromwell, a close relative of lungwort.
In The Language of Flowers, edited by Frederic Shoberl in 1835, lungwort is listed as the plant of the Feast Day of St Leander on February 27th. St Leander was a Spanish saint who died in 600 AD, worn out by his work with the Visigoths. Why the connection with lungwort, I have no idea, except that this is, as we’ve noticed, an early-flowering plant, and one which is native to the whole of Europe and western Asia. it is not, however, native to the UK, arriving here in 1597 (probably as a medicinal) and bursting forth into our woody places by 1793. Some of its showier varieties are also popular garden plants, and indeed the ones that I’ve spotted are undoubtedly garden escapes, or deliberately planted. If you prefer flowers that are white, or more brightly coloured than those in the picture, they can easily be bought online or in your garden centre. However, beware: lungworts love to cross-pollinate, and your subsequent plants may return to the motley of the original.
Although the leaves look rather inedible, they have been used in salads, and on her website ‘The Backyard Patch Herbal Blog’, Marcy Lautanen-Raleigh recommends using the rather slimy cooked leaves as a replacement for okra. She has some interesting recipes for the plant on her website here.
I was also delighted to discover that lungwort had a whole day for itself in the French Revolutionary Rural calendar, used from 1789 to 1805, and for 18 days during the Paris Commune of 1871. All the months were had 30 days each, starting from the autumn equinox, and were named for the weather around Paris. Each week had ten days. The naming of the individual days in what was known as the Rural calendar was intended to turn the eyes and hearts of agricultural people away from all these Saints Days, and towards the more secular beauties of the countryside. Every tenth day was named for a farming implement, so the tenth day of Brumaire (in October) was Charrue, or plough. Every fifth day was named for a common animal, so the fifth day of Brumaire was Oie, or goose. And in between came the plants. Lungwort crept in on the 19th day of Pluviose (20th January to 18th February), as ‘Pulmonaire’, and here is an attractive lady coping with the inclement weather of the month.
I rather like the idea of having days named after plants and animals. My birthday, as it turns out, would have been named for the spurge-laurel (which has not yet featured as a Wednesday Weed) and if you would like to check out your own birthday, just for the fun of it, you can find all the details here.
There is much to love about lungwort. The incredible colour-changing flowers with their messages to the bees, the white-spotted lung-shaped leaves, the February flowering and the possibility of using the plant to replace okra, surely the most demonic vegetable ever invented (with the possible exception of the jerusalem artichoke). I have tried and failed to grow it in my garden many times, probably because, according to Monty Don, it will be very prone to mildew if it dries out in the summer. Maybe I will try again, with a watering can to hand.
Photo One (moth) – By José Ramón P. V. – Flickr: Ethmia pusiella IMG_1060, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20651046
Photo Two (Pluviose) – By Tresca, Salvatore (Graveur) – Lafitte, Louis (Dessinateur du modèle) – http://cghaubiere.blogspot.it/2012/01/calendrier-republicain.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36981503
All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!