In the Garden:
New England
May, 2003
Regional Report

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'Majesty' pulmonaria's colorful blooms and spotted foliage make it a good ground cover for shady spots.

Hardy Plants with Fun Names

It's easy to see how lamb's ears or balloon flower got their names, but what about pigsqueak, foxglove, or leopard's bane? Here are some hardy perennials that have fascinating stories behind their common names. All are hardy in the Northeast.

Bergenia
Bergenia cordifolia goes by the common name heartleaf bergenia, or, more colorfully, pigsqueak. The latter is said to refer to the sound your fingers make when you rub the leaves between thumb and forefinger, although I haven't tried it myself (yet). Originating from Siberia, bergenia is hardy to USDA Zones 3 and prefers light shade and moist soils. It grows to a height of about 12 inches, with large, glossy, heart-shaped leaves, making it an attractive groundcover, especially in mass plantings. Small flowers appear in clusters atop fleshy stems in early spring, and the leaves turn burgundy in winter. Bergenia grows well with hostas, ferns, and pulmonaria.

Pulmonaria
Pulmonaria has an interesting tale of its own. This low-growing plant is prized for its curious mottled foliage, and it was this unusual coloration that gave rise to both its scientific and common names. The spotted leaves were thought to resemble lungs, hence the common name lungwort. The botanical name derives from the Latin "pulmo," meaning lung. It was believed that plants that resembled body parts were good for treating ailments of that body part, so lungwort was historically used to treat lung problems. (It is no longer used for that purpose.) Although it makes for an interesting story, it's unfortunate that such a lovely plant is burdened with a not-so-lovely name.

Pulmonarias bloom in the spring, with flower colors of red, blue, white, and violet, depending on the variety. Some types have pink buds that open up to reddish violet blossoms, which then turn blue as they age, creating three-toned flower clusters -- though their diminutive stature means you'll need to view them up close to fully appreciate them. Plant pulmonaria as a groundcover under deciduous trees along with early-flowering bulbs for a beautiful springtime show. They prefer morning sun and cool temperatures, so they may die back in the heat and humidity of midsummer. Most species are hardy to zone 4, but there are exceptions so check before purchasing plants.

Leopard's Bane
Another good choice for part shade and moist soils is doronicum, or leopard's bane. Native to Eurasia, doronicum got its common name because leopard hunters in Asia would dip their arrows in the juices of doronicum before the hunt. I can't imagine it was very effective -- the plant isn't considered particularly poisonous (at least it hasn't made it into Cornell University's Poisonous Plants Informational Database). So it's surprising that the name has stuck.

Leopard's bane grows to a height of 12 to 14 inches and sports bright yellow, daisylike flowers on stiff stems, making it a good choice for cutting gardens. It begins blooming in early spring and will continue blooming into fall, although plants in hot, dry conditions may go dormant during the summer and reappear as temperatures cool down in autumn. Leopard's bane is one of a relatively small number of plants that will thrive under black walnut trees. (Note that Arnica montana also goes by the common name leopard's bane.)

Aconitum
Those leopard hunters would have been better off using Aconitum napellus, a.k.a. wolfbane, to tip their arrows. All parts of this handsome, hardy perennial are considered highly poisonous, especially the roots and seeds. (This one does make Cornell's list.) If you have children or pets who might be tempted to nibble, avoid this plant. Otherwise, it makes a handsome addition to the perennial garden, with its glossy, lobed leaves and deep blue flower spikes. Individual flowers are shaped like a helmet or hood, hence its other common name, monkshood. (I've spent hours watching chubby bumblebees squirm their way into the hood in search of what must be some pretty special nectar.)

The shrubby plant grows to a height of 3 to 4 feet and prefers rich, moist soil. It will grow in full sun as long as the soil is consistently moist, but it prefers light shade.


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