How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Brunnera

Brunnera is a strikingly beautiful plant that is perfect for the shade garden. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss talks about how to grow and maintain this easy-going plant for beautiful spring flowers and striking shade-friendly ground cover.

The Brunnera plant features heart-shaped, silver-green leaves with prominent dark green veins and delicate, small blue flowers resembling forget-me-nots.

Contents

With heart-shaped leaves and frothy blue flowers, brunnera is a delightful addition to the shade garden. This woodland ground cover has a reputation for being low-maintenance and easy to cultivate and control. Its distinctive foliage combines well with other shade-lovers, like ferns and hostas.  Add brunnera to your shade or woodland garden for a pop of color and charming foliage. 

Overview

Brunnera plants have large, heart-shaped leaves that are deep green with silver markings, and they produce clusters of tiny, bright blue flowers.
Plant Type Perennial
Family Boraginanceae
Genus Brunnera
Species spp
Native Area Eastern Europe, North West Asia
Exposure Partial to full shade
Height 1’-2’
Watering Requirements Moderate to high
Pests & Diseases Aphids, slugs, nematodes
Maintenance Low
Soil Type Fertile, moist, well-drained
Soil pH Any

What is Brunnera?

Close-up of large, heart-shaped leaves that are green and silver-tinged.
This shade-loving perennial thrives as a stunning, low-maintenance ground cover.

Brunnera is a widely appreciated woodland understory plant. This shade-loving perennial makes a stunning ground cover and produces delicately beautiful spring flowers. It works well in shaded spaces where others might struggle to thrive. Its slow and easily-controlled spread makes this an ideal and low-maintenance addition to the garden. 

History

View of a forest clearing with a densely growing groundcover displaying large, heart-shaped leaves, complemented by small, vivid blue flowers.
This plant thrives in shaded areas, offering beautiful ground cover.

Brunnera borrows its name from Swiss botanist Samuel Brunner, who was an expert on North African and Italian botany. Its common name, bugloss, comes from the Greek word for ‘ox tongue.’ The reason for this is the fine hairs that cover the leaves of many species. 

Some types of brunnera have naturalized in North America. They are commonly used as a ground cover in shaded areas where many plants won’t grow, much less bloom. One cultivar, ‘Jack Frost,’ a sport of B. macrophylla, earned the title of Perennial Plant of the Year in 2012 from the Perennial Plant Association. 

Native Area

Siberian bugloss blooming in the forest, forming broad, heart-shaped leaves with a silvery sheen and striking blue flowers that bloom in airy clusters.
Brunnera thrives in cool, moist woodland understory conditions.

Brunnera is native to Eastern Europe and Northwest Asia, where it grows in the woodland understory. Expect to find it growing naturally alongside streams and ponds, as it is particularly fond of cool, moist conditions. 

Characteristics

Close-up of large, textured leaves that are silver with green veining and charming clusters of small blue flowers.
This perennial boasts heart-shaped leaves and beautiful blue flowers.

Brunnera is a clump-forming perennial with a rhizomatous root system that helps it to spread and colonize. A single specimen grows to about 18 to 24 inches tall and two to three feet wide. The leaves are heart-shaped and dark green, many with variegation in shades of white, grayish-green, and silver. Many varieties have hairy leaves with a rough texture. 

In early to mid-spring, tall, thin stems grow and support sprays of small, fine, blue flowers. These flowers resemble forget-me-nots and earned the nickname of false forget-me-nots. The blooms can last through early summer. 

Uses

The Brunnera macrophylla plant has bold, heart-shaped leaves with a distinctive silver pattern and produces delicate, sky-blue flowers on slender stems in a shade garden.
Brunnera excels as a low-maintenance, ornamental shade ground cover.

This perennial is a lovely, low-maintenance ornamental. It’s great for those shady areas of the garden that might be difficult to access and tend to. It makes a nice border and mixes well with other shade and moisture-loving species.

Where to Buy

Close-up of potted Brunnera plants with large heart-shaped leaves of a silvery hue with dark green veins.
Common varieties are easily found in local nurseries.

You can usually find popular varieties at local nurseries. To find rarer types, you may need to look online.

Planting

Close-up of a young, freshly transplanted Brunnera seedling with clusters of tiny blue flowers and small heart-shaped green leaves.
Plant brunnera in spring for optimal root establishment before winter.

Spring is the best time to plant. This gives it maximum time to establish roots before winter. Choose a location with full shade or partial shade only in the morning, and amend the soil if needed with well-rotted compost. Dig a hole that is as deep and twice as wide as the root ball. 

Place your plant in the hole so that the top of the root ball is level with the surrounding earth. Backfill around the root ball and gently tamp down the soil to remove any air pockets. Space individual plants about 18 to 30 inches apart to account for their spread. 

Then, water thoroughly. Initially, they will need water every couple of days until new growth appears. Don’t allow the soil to dry out while they’re getting established. 

How to Grow

Brunnera is low-maintenance and easy to grow in the right location. Consistent moisture is the thing you will need to pay the most attention to. 

Light

Blooming bush of false forget-me-nots boasts lush, heart-shaped leaves in shades of silver and green, accented by clusters of petite, blue flowers.
Morning sun in cooler climates helps this plant thrive best.

The amount of sun needed depends on the climate. The indicated climate area is Zones 3-8. It prefers cool temperatures and will burn in too much sunlight. In warm climates, make sure that it is in the shade. A few hours of indirect sunlight is all it really needs to thrive. 

In cooler climates, it will tolerate some sun exposure, but time of day is important. The afternoon sun in just about any location is too hot and harsh for these leaves. A few hours of morning sun is ideal for brunnera in cool climates. 

Water

Close-up of a cluster of small blue flowers covered with drops of water.
This plant thrives in consistently moist, shaded environments with cool soil.

Consistently moist soil is best. You will find it growing naturally alongside streams and in shaded areas beside ponds. Anywhere the soil stays lightly moist and cool, it will be happy. Because it lives in the shade, you may not have to water this one as often. 

Again, watering, like sun exposure, all depends on your climate. In hot weather, you’re likely to find it needs more water. During the first season, the soil should stay moist at all times. Once established, it will be slightly more tolerant of dry soil, but not much. At no point will it be drought tolerant. 

Soil

Close-up of a gardener holding a handful of fresh, fluffy, dark brown hues.
Good drainage and fertile, loamy soil ensure optimal growth conditions.

Because it likes to stay moist, drainage is important where soil comes into play. The ideal soil is fertile, loamy, and well-draining. At the time of planting, you can amend the soil with a healthy dose of compost to add nutrients and improve drainage. 

Brunnera is not particular about soil pH. It will adapt to acidic, neutral, or alkaline soil. It will grow fastest and largest in rich, fertile, moist soil.

Temperature and Humidity

The Brunnera plant showcases large, green leaves and airy clusters of tiny blue flowers.
Brunnera thrives in cool climates but struggles in heat.

In terms of temperature, brunnera handles cold weather better than hot weather. Silver-leafed varieties tend to be more tolerant of heat and will do best near the southern end of the range. It is winter hardy, but the foliage will die back after a frost. Humidity, hand in hand with heat, will cause it to suffer.

Fertilizing

Close-up of a man's hands holding a handful of chemical granular fertilizers.
Fertilize annually with all-purpose fertilizer in spring for optimal growth.

Brunnera shouldn’t need fertilizer during the first season. Amending the soil with organic compost will supply plenty of nutrients that break down slowly. In successive years, fertilize once per year, in the spring.

Give a single application of all-purpose fertilizer. A liquid is gentler than a granular fertilizer, but both work well. Though, it shouldn’t need anything more unless you have poor soil.

Maintenance

Close-up of a large Brunnera macrophylla bush in a garden with mulched soil, characterized by large heart-shaped, silver-mottled leaves and tiny, bright blue flowers that appear in loose clusters.
Leave dead foliage until spring to protect roots and mulch for insulation.

Throughout the growing season, remove any tattered or damaged leaves. This keeps the plant applying energy to new and healthy foliage and flowers. It also keeps the plant looking more attractive in general. Avoid the urge to prune the dead leaves from the plant until spring. 

The dead foliage helps to protect the roots over the winter. When new leaves begin to emerge in the spring, it’s time to remove all the old, dead foliage. Apply a layer of mulch in the fall to offer the roots some additional insulation over the winter and to reduce the amount of watering you have to do through the growth season. 

Every two to three years, dig up and divide your plants to avoid crowding. Simply re-plant the portions you’ve divided so that they have enough space to grow. Do this in spring. Deadheading is not vital, but it will reduce re-seeding and make the plant look tidier. 

Growing in Containers

Close-up of a plant with silvery heart-shaped leaves growing in a large container in the garden.
Grow in large, well-drained pots in shaded locations for best results.

You can grow this plant in containers, and it makes a low-maintenance container specimen except for one aspect. It will need more water than the average potted plant. Choose a pot that is large enough to accommodate the roots and deep enough that the soil won’t dry out too quickly. Your container should have ample drainage to avoid fungal issues

Use a well-draining potting mix amended with compost as a potting medium. Place your potted plant in a cool, shaded location. For varieties with silver leaves, a few hours of morning sun is acceptable. Locate varieties with darker leaves in the shade with indirect light only. Potted plants are more vulnerable to cold weather. In the winter, move them into a protected spot like a shed or garage. Repot and divide every year or so to avoid root binding.

Propagation

Close-up of a large Siberian bugloss plant with large green heart-shaped leaves and clusters of tiny blue flowers rising above the foliage.
Propagate in spring by division or in winter by cuttings.

The most common and effective way to propagate is by division. In the spring, as soon as the plant begins its growth season, dig it up and divide the roots. Then, simply re-plant the divisions, giving them enough space to spread. You can also propagate by cuttings in water. This is best done over the winter. 

Jack Frost

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ features heart-shaped leaves with a striking silver overlay and green veins.
This variety boasts silvery leaves, perfect for morning sun spots.
botanical-name botanical name Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial to full shade
height height 15”-18”
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-8

‘Jack Frost’ is a variegated brunnera with a lot of silvery markings on the leaves. This makes it a good choice for areas of the garden that receive some morning sun. The silver markings make it more resistant to sun damage and more heat tolerant as well. It blooms in May and June with boldly hued flowers that are delicate in form. 

Sea Heart

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Sea Heart’ has thick, heart-shaped leaves with a silvery sheen and pronounced green veins.
A shorter variety with silver leaves and stunning blue-pink blooms.
botanical-name botanical name Brunnera macrophylla ‘Sea Heart’
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial shade
height height 6”-12”
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-9

‘Sea Heart’ is a shorter variety that makes a gorgeous ground cover. It has silver leaves with bold green veining. In spring, sprays of pink buds appear, opening to blue flowers. This creates a lovely two-toned effect as the flowers open while others are still in bud. This variety is also more tolerant of sun and heat because of its silver leaves. 

Alexander’s Great

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Alexander’s Great’ showcases large, heart-shaped leaves with a distinctive silver pattern and green veining.
This variety features enormous silvery leaves with deep green veining.
botanical-name botanical name Brunnera macrophylla ‘Alexander’s Great’
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial shade
height height 12”-18″
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-8

‘Alexander’s Great’ is as sun and heat-tolerant as the last two, but this one has a very impressive characteristic. The leaves are enormous! If you want an impressive specimen, this is the one. The silvery leaves with deep green veining can reach as large as 12″ long and 10 inches wide!

This hybrid doesn’t always self-seed true to the original. Some seedlings may have solid green leaves that will be less sun tolerant. Just dig them up and move them to a shadier spot for more variety.

Emerald Mist

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Emerald Mist’ displays heart-shaped leaves with a unique combination of silver spotting and green edges, and produces clusters of vibrant blue flowers.
This dark variety prefers shade, showcasing stunning blue-green foliage.
botanical-name botanical name Brunnera macrophylla ‘Emerald Mist’ PP20460
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial to full shade
height height 12”-15”
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-8

‘Emerald Mist’ is the darkest of these varieties, with only a smattering of silver toward the outer edges. As a result, it prefers a more shaded location. The deep blue-green, heart-shaped leaves look gorgeous in a mass planting. The delicate blue flowers appear a lighter shade in contrast to the deep color of the leaves. This is a taller variety, that can grow up to 15 inches tall, and forms an impressive mound.

Common Problems

This is a surprisingly sturdy plant with very few issues. There are no major diseases that are likely to crop up. Brunnera is disease-resistant for the most part. 

Pests

A snail has a soft, elongated body with a coiled, spiraled shell on its back, two pairs of tentacles on its head.
Protect against pests like snails and slugs with various remedies.

Snails and slugs are the biggest issues that you will face with this plant. Their affinity for cool, moist areas makes them a pleasant home for these creatures who may take up residence beneath their large leaves. Other culprits in the pest arena include nematodes. None of these are likely to do serious harm, but they can leave unsightly holes in the leaves. 

Because you can’t solarize the ground in shade, getting rid of nematodes can be complicated. Beneficial nematodes are a good option. Apply two treatments two weeks apart in temperate seasons before planting brunnera. There are plenty of solutions to keeping away slugs and snails. Diatomaceous earth is effective, as are beer traps and coffee grounds.

Sunscorch

Close-up of a flowering Brunnera plant with clusters of small blue flowers and heart-shaped green leaves affected by Sunscorch.
Prevent sun scorch by relocating to a shadier environment promptly.

The greatest environmental problem for brunnera is sun scorch. If you notice the leaves looking sickly and changing to a whitish-gold shade, they are probably getting too much sun. The best solutions are to plant something larger nearby for shelter or move your brunnera to a shadier spot. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are My Brunnera Leaves Turning Brown?

If the leaves look brown and crispy, it probably needs more water. Brunnera is a moisture lover, so the soil should be consistently moist to maintain its lush, heart-shaped leaves.

Is Brunnera Toxic to Humans or Pets?

No, it is not considered toxic, but it also isn’t considered edible. Don’t worry if a pet has a taste, but it isn’t something a child should munch on.

Is Brunnera Invasive?

No, it’s not considered invasive. It is slow to spread and easy to remove if it pops up in places where you don’t want it.

Final Thoughts

It can be difficult to find beautiful flowering plants for the shade garden. Brunnera fits these specifications to a T. From the beautiful heart-shaped leaves to the charming and delicate blue blooms. This perennial is a must-have for shaded areas of the yard. Its easy-going nature is the icing on the cake!

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