Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Lungwort, Pulmonaria officinalis

Both the scientific name, Pulmonaria officinalis, and the English name, lungwort, refer to this species supposedly being used to treat diseased lungs.  It’s said that according to the Doctrine of Signatures its spotted leaves resembled such lungs.  David Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield in their Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition (2004) note that ‘the plant does in fact contain active principles which are claimed in alternative medicine circles to be genuinely beneficial for respiratory complaints’.  However, they are able to provide only two records, from Hampshire and Norfolk, of lungwort being used for treating pulmonary tuberculosis, and note that these records pehaps refer to the lichen Lobaria pulmonaria, which shares its English name.  While the Hampshire ‘lungwort’ is likely to have been Lobaria, it’s unlikely that the Norfolk one was so, the lichen is resticted to the western parts of Britain.

Lungwort flowers open pink and become blue as they age, and this feature, together with its cream-spotted leaves, has stimulated c.30 local names and a number of legends.  Such names include Adam-and-Eve in Cambridgeshire, Cumberland and Somerset; Joseph-and-Mary in Cornwall and Dorset; Joseph’s coat-of-many-colours in London, and soldiers-and-sailors in Dorset and Suffolk.  In Wiltshire it was said that ‘lungwort is associated with the Virgin Mary because it has blue and pink flowers – these two colours being the colours of the Virgin’s Mary’s clothes in medieval paintings’.

More usually the spots on lungwort leaves are said to have been caused by the Virgin Mary’s milk being spilt on them.  In Salisbury, Hampshire, in the last nineteenth-century an elderly woman weeding a garden objected to pulling out lungwort: ‘”Do ee know, Sir, what they white spots be?” ‘No I don’t.” “Why they be the Virgin Mary’s Milk! so don’t ee turn em out, for it would be very unlucky.”‘  In 2000 a note from Merthyr Tydfil, Mid Glamorgan, provided the name Mother Mary’s milk: ‘the white splashes on the leaves were supposed to have got there when the BVM was feeding the infant Jesus and there was a small “accident”‘.  The name Virgin Mary’s milk-drops, recorded from Monmouthshire and Wiltshire, suggest that such ideas were widepread.

Alternatively, J.S. Udal, in his Dorsetshire Folk-lore (1922) recorded that Osmington cottagers liked to have lungwort in their gardens, and called it Mary’s tears. ‘The legend is that the spots on the leaves are the marks of the tears shed by St Mary after the crucifixion. Farther … her eyes were blue as the fully opened flower, and by weeping the eyelids became as red as the buds.’

Other names which associate lungwort with St Mary include Virgin Mary’s cowslip in Gloucestershire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire, and Virgin Mary’s honeysuckle in Cheshire and Shropshire.  Lady’s pincushion, recorded from Cheshire and Yorkshire, may indirectly associate the plant with the Virgin.  It was said that the white spots on the leaves resembled pins’-heads on a cushion’.

Images: cultivated, Shaftesbury, Dorset, February 2024.