We tend to think of pulmonarias as quintessential blue spring flowers, but their red cousins are just as valuable garden plants says Graham Rice
Well over 250 different pulmonarias have been grown in Britain over the years, but only a small proportion have genuinely red flowers, without any blue. Yet these few are some of the most colourful and effective of them all.
All are forms of Pulmonaria rubra (see photo, right), a native of eastern Europe that has naturalised in a few places in northern Britain. It makes more substantial plants than most pulmonarias with unspotted (or very lightly spotted) pale green, softly hairy foliage and, in its wild form, red flowers in spring.
‘Warburg’s Red’, sadly not available at the moment, has the darkest red flowers but ‘Bowles’s Red’ and ‘Redstart’ are also a good colour. Expert opinion, however, judges them insufficiently different from the wild species to deserve cultivar names. ‘Redstart’, it seems, was only given its name to distinguish the stock from other similar unnamed plants submitted for a trial back in 1970. Perhaps that accounts for the removal of its AGM.
There are also two pretty varieties with striped red flowers: pin-eyed ‘Ann’, discovered by nurseryman John Metcalf, is more vigorous, larger flowered and more reddish-pink-and-white while thrum eyed ‘Barfield Pink’, which originated in Margery Fish’s garden at East Lambrook Manor, is more red-and-white.
It's in the eyes
Yes, just like primroses (remember your school botany?), pulmonaria plants come as either pin-eyed or thrum-eyed forms*, an arrangement of flower parts that encourages cross-pollination.
So, if you have only one variety, you’re fairly certain to get no self-sown seedlings unless your neighbours also grow pulmonarias. If you have both pin-eyed and thrum-eyed plants in the garden, self sown seedlings are very likely to pop up – sometimes in large numbers.
There are also two appealing variegated varieties, each with white-edged leaves and coral-red flowers. ‘David Ward’ (see photo, top) is the most widely grown and most consistently variegated, but I find it scorches in sun, and sometimes in partial shade if it gets dry. It has thrum-eyed flowers. ‘Rachel Vernie’ is more vigorous, less consistently variegated, rarely scorches and has pin-eyed flowers – but is much less often seen.
These are all tough, bold, and colourful plants for partial or dappled shade. Ideal as restrained ground cover and happy in most soils, including heavy clay, they’re best if neither parched nor waterlogged. I’ve found that while they’re determined to increase steadily, they’re never too vigorous.
Pulmonaria 'Vera May'
*See page 59 of Occasional Papers, July 2010 for a full explanation of the morhology of pin and thrum flowers, with a diagram from one of Charles Darwin's books on page 61