Found naturally occurring in southern Europe and western Eurasia where it has long been eaten as a spring vegetable, this member of the Borage Family (Boraginaceae) is known colloquially as Abraham-Isaac-Jacob. Over the centuries, the same name has been applied to both Pulmonaria as well as Symphytum (both relatives of Trachystemon), probably due to the fact that their flowers change color as they fade.
The genus name translates literally to rough(trachy) stamen(stemon). Though it is unlikely that many of us would take the time to decipher the relative texture of a stamen, the generic name granted might have easily been Trachyphyllum (rough leaves) had it not already been usurped by a common moss. The foliage of Trachystemon is decidedly sandpapery to the touch, making it obvious that its preparation for consuming in spring involves boiling water (along with salt and copious quantities of butter).
In very early spring, i.e. now, the blue-fading-to-pink flowers of this species open on stems to 10″ in height. The heart-shaped foliage begins to emerge simultaneously, allowing for a nice viewing of the floral show before fully expanding to 12″. Forming beefy yet slowly expanding clumps, the plant is an ideal, weed-smothering and especially durable perennial for shade or partially sheltered sites. It is seemingly as happy in gardens of Vermont as in the Puget Sound lowlands of Washington where its bold foliage superficially resembles that of a Hosta unpalatable to slugs and snails.
Relatively scarce in cultivation is a golden-foliaged variant of this species, pictured above, that adds another dimension of interest, at least in the early months of the growing season when it is most vibrant. The best selection to date is a recently introduced cultivar known as “Sundew” from Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, N.C.
Both the standard green as well as its chartreuse-foliaged counterpart are looking very dapper in the gardens at Heronswood now, along with an additional contingent of early risers adding a splash of color, texture and fragrance to our woodland and perennial borders alike. Please visit us this weekend to see Abraham-Isaac-Jacob at its zenith of flower.