When I first became interested in herbs, nearly 15 years ago, Lungwort, the intriguing spotted member of the borage family, was one of the first plants to really captivate me. Something about its woodland and shade loving tendencies, the spotted leaves, the flowers that change colour so charmingly, really piqued my interest and kindled imagination, and the name itself – Lungwort – really fascinated me at the beginning of my descent into the murky cauldron of herbalism. As is typical with many of the herbs with an old and venerable history behind them, Lungwort has many different folk names, including Jerusalem Cowslip, Soldiers and Sailors, Llysiau’r ysgyfaint, Spotted Dog, Maple Lungwort, Spotted Comfrey. Herb of Mary, Virgin Mary’s Mildrops and Bethlehem Sage.
A delightful shade loving perennial, Lungwort lives in shady sections of gardens, and sometimes naturalises to woodlands and well shaded hedgerows. The leaves are lanceolate, coming to a fairly sharp point, and also narrow fairly abruptly at the base, and are spotted with white or soft cream. The whole plant is a little on the bristly side, much like many members of the borage family. I’ve never found that it grows overly large in size, remaining small and compact. It contains many constituents in common with the rest of the family, including allantoin, flavonoids, mucilage, tannins, mineral salts such as silica and vitamin c, though apparently the dreaded pyrrolizidine alkaloids so common to this family are absent from this particular member.
Used internally, the herb is expectorant and emollient, excellent for hot, tight, congested chest complaints as it encourages production and removal of excess phlegm. Being drying, it can also be used to dry conditions such as bronchitis and laryngitis as well as diarrhoea. The allantoin content is probably responsible for its use topically in wound healing – I’d be interested to find out just how much allantoin this plant has in comparison to comfrey, just to make sure that it was safe to use on open wounds! Apparently Lungwort is particularly good for advanced cases of lung illness, where long inflammation has begun to break down the connective tissue that supports the lungs. (For more about this, read Matthew Wood’s excellent book ‘The Earthwise Herbal’ – it deserves a place on every herbalist’s bookshelf!) The silica, apparently present as silicic acid, restores elasticity to the lungs, while the antibiotic properties may well be partially responsible for its reputation as a wound and tuberculosis herb. Intriguingly enough, though we tend to use it predominantly for lung complaints over here, over in France it is traditionally used for the heart, especially for cases of palpitations and tachycardia. I’m going to have to do some more research on this one, as if this is true, it will be a useful addition to the range of remedies available for this sort of problem. Strangely enough, Mrs Grieve has little to nothing to say about the herb, a problem that I’ve found pretty much across the board where my books are concerned (a sign that I need to expand my library, perhaps?!)
The leaves are edible, and can be used in salads and as a pot herb, which it was used for extensively in the medieval era, to add bulk to soups and stews. I just love an all purpose plant! Better yet, the bees love it, and it is one of the earlier flowering spring plants. What’s not to like??
I tried a tea of the dried herb recently, being unable to obtain the fresh herb. I found it had a similar scent to that of the dried tea of Comfrey and Borage, however on drinking, I found it lacked the honeyish undertones that the aforementioned herbs both had. The flavour is slightly astringent, minerally and moistening. I found it ‘sat’ on my lungs more pronouncedly than borage or comfrey did, but more comfortably after a few minutes. It seems to have less mucilage than comfrey, which had a pronounced ring of it sitting in the cup and forming a layer on top of the tea. It certainly is much more drying, and for me at least, I noticed a much greater expectorant quality than that offered by comfrey. On first drinking, the tea descends noticeably to the chest and lungs, but this pressure lifts after a few moments to facilitate easier breathing. Unlike borage, the tea did not seem to linger around the eyes, but I did feel as though the top of my head and around my sinuses were more comfortable and less congested after drinking one cup of the tea. I don’t think this herb is anywhere near as cold as borage is, nor does it seem to give any heightened level of alertness after drinking, unlike the borage – and both myself and my colleague / lab rat agreed on this! It seems to facilitate introspection and quiet, but not sleepiness.
Overall – this little beauty deserves closer scrutiny, and I just may use this as my first subject for Goethian plant study in the hopes of learning a little more about this forgotten gem. It has also brought back to light the problem concerning a lack of information on many of the herbs that have fallen out of fashion in favour of using other plants, often brought in from overseas, but I am not going to get off topic here. I may have a bit of a rant about that in a later post, so watch this space if pithy and pointed comments are something that interest you! Suffice it to say that it is high time I added more of the older eclectic herbals to my bookshelf…