Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Celestial blue

This is Pulmonaria longifolia - also known as the narrow-leaved lungwort. It's blooming today in my shady front yard, beneath the California coast live oaks. It's somewhat splashed with grit and sand from our last spate of rains, but its cheerful blue pops up at you from the woodsy floor.

"Lungwort" isn't a very pretty name for such a pretty flower, but it's an name that goes back to early times. The lightly fuzzed leaves of the lungwort are spotted with silver, and in medieval times they were thought to resemble diseased and ulcerated lungs. According to the principles of sympathetic magic, herbalists used the lungwort to treat respiratory illnesses.

Pulmonaria are cousins to other blue flowers, like forget-me-not and borage. In some varieties, the buds are pink, and after the flowers open they mature to a bright, clear blue. A cluster of flowers can be mixed, all sky-blue-pink like Uncle Wiggly!

Some named cultivars have been selected for their coloring - deep or light blue, or even white - or for particularly silvered leaves. Mine is named "Benediction," after Seattle gardener Loie Benedict. You can find other named varieties like "Roy Davidson" and "Bertram Anderson," but I have an affection for "Benediction" because it was introduced by the Seattle plantsman Jerry Flintoff, who was my Seattle neighbor. Its flowers, as you can see, are a particularly deep sky blue.

UPDATE: To answer MAYBELLINE in the comments: The folklore idea of "sympathetic magic" is that things influence what they resemble. So people thought tea from a leaf that looks like a sick lung can heal a lung, or because walnuts resemble brains, eating them makes you smart. Or, more sinisterly, if you harm a doll that looks like a certain person, it will harm the actual person.

I think the plant was named "lungwort" or "lungenkraut" or "that plant that heals lungs" first, and then the botanical name was coined after the folk name. Carl Linnaeus starting naming things in binomial nomenclature in the mid 18th century, and probably just latinized what people were already calling it - "The narrow-leaved version of that plant that [everybody thinks] heals lungs."

10 comments:

Lisa Paul said...

Sign me up as someone who prefers the common names to the Latin names. I found a pretty little daisy like thing with a high-falutin' Latin name. But I liked it much better when I found out it was Stinking Dog Fennel.

Didn't Shakespeare say something about Stinking Dog Fennel by any other name...

Blondie's Journal said...

I have heard of lungwort before...in fact I think I love all flowers that end in ~wort! lol!!

How pretty, such a vibrant blue. Isn't it nice to find something blooming after some wretched weather?

xoxo
Jane

MAYBELLINE said...

I wonder what the association is between the Latin name (Pulmonaria longifolia) and the medical use of the word pulmonary: Having to do with the lungs. (The word comes from the Latin pulmo for lung). Interesting that the plant gets the name Lungwort and herbalists used it for respiratory illnesses.

I thought your image of the lungwort looked similar to lobelia. When I looked up another image of lungwort - boy was I wrong. I don't know that I have a favorite color of flower; but blue is one of my many favorites.

dana said...

How lucky you are to have that blue beauty blooming for you! We are frozen in the mid-west. NEXT week, we might climb into the 40s...a real heatwave! Hope you're having a great week! Dana

kcinnova said...

Oh! How beautiful! Everything here is brown, black, gray, and white. You just made me look forward to digging my blue pot up out of the garden where it is buried in mulch to survive the winter. I have itty-bitty flowers of that color planted inside the pot.

Middle Aged Woman said...

I LOVE blue flowers. I have some hydrangea that I bury pennies by to keep it coming up blue, and some Russian sage, which I love as much for the smell as the purple-blue flowerettes. I look forward to your garden column at the WC!

Middle Aged Woman said...

Oh, and my favorite little blue flower is Scilla siberica

Sue (Someone's Mom) said...

I love that color...gorgeous!

Gilly said...

That is a beautiful blue Lungwort! I have lots of the ordinary sort, that come up pink and mature to pale blue, quite often on the same stem. They were also called "Soldiers and Sailors" in England as the blue was the colour of sailors uniforms, and the pinky-red the colour of soldiers'. That was in the days before they invented khaki, and then desert camoflage colour! The term "The think Red Line" refers to the way soldiers would fight, in ther red uniforms, marching in a line across the battlefield.

Not the most useful way of winning a battle once gunfire arrived, but of course, the high-up Generals persisted in their outdated beliefs. As always!

Sorry, got carried away!

Beverly said...

Glennis, you are always teaching me new things. This bloom is gorgeous. I love blues in nature. They are not common, and therefore they are such a special treat.

I am just back to work this week. It had been quite a while since I felt like visiting anyone, and I missed everyone.