Lungwort: Breathe easy, free from toxic pollution

Finding lungwort growing wild in my yard is a special treat and as close as Mother Earth gets to praising organic urban homesteading. Lungwort only grows in places that are particularly lacking in toxic pollution.

 Creative Commons image by Prof. D. Richards of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Prof. D. Richards of Flickr.com

Often it's found in idyllic forest glades for just this reason. But for the past twelve years, it has grown by some stone steps my husband and I built by hand. The pretty little plants appear to avoid the east side of our house where coal smoke from the town sometimes rolls up just below our front door. 

Lungwort was identified centuries ago as a plant that could be beneficial for those with respiratory ailments. Some scholars today ascribe this to the medieval "doctrine of signatures," which held that plants vaguely resembling a part or attribute of the human body could help in that reflected area. The leaves of lungwort are vaguely lung-shaped and have spots on them that some people think might mirror what a diseased lung would look like. 

Remedies developed based on the "doctrine of signatures" have been widely discredited by empirical trials. Mostly it appears plants simply don't resemble human body parts all that much and any accidental similarity is just a fluke. (Yet another blow to the conceit that the universe revolves around us.)

However, it is worth noting that most theories get started somewhere. And lungwort, being a particularly ancient European herb, could have been among the reasons some healer long ago developed the doctrine. In a world ruled by religion, like Europe in the Middle Ages, it would be tempting to believe that an all-knowing God would put clues to healing in the appearance of plants and lungwort has a handy shape.

 Creative Commons image by Normanack of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Normanack of Flickr.com

But the connection is likely reversed from what most believe. Lungwort has been proven in studies, including those by the University of North Carolina, to be helpful in soothing lung irritation caused by pollution or allergens. It is also used to treat asthma, bronchitis, tuberculosis and coughs accompanying viral infections. Medieval healers may have known of these properties and used the plant's resemblance to a lung to come up with the "doctrine of signatures."

Lungwort is sometimes available in capsules of freeze-dried, ground leaves or in tincture, but not enough study has been done on these processes and there is anecdotal evidence from herbalists to suggest that lungwort is not very effective unless used in its unprocessed form as fresh or air-dried leaves and flowers. The mucilage (a slimy substance) in the leaves as well as antioxidant compounds appear to account for its benefits to the respiratory system.

 Creative Commons image by  Andrii Zymohliad

Creative Commons image by  Andrii Zymohliad

Lungwort is relatively easy to spot because it is one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring, with violet and pink blossoms as well as lush, slightly hairy dark-green leaves with their distinctive shape and pale spots.

Lungwort leaves are also used in fresh salads. That is the best way to get the full antioxidant effects, which are good for the skin and general health. But they do have a bit of a bitter bite like some other dark greens.

Lungwort is also used to aid the treatment of urinary tract infections, heavy menstrual bleeding, thyroid problems and digestive bloating. Medical research with lungwort is particularly scarce, possibly because of its association with the "doctrine of signatures," so there is less data available about its other benefits than for its use with lung ailments, but experience bears it out.