Variations on a Theme: Forget-me-not, Heartleaf or Green Alkanet?

Why is it that we like to identify plants? To check whether it is safe or to eat or not, perhaps, or as a first step in working out how to buy one. To check if it is generally regarded by tastemakers as a weed or as a fit plant for a garden. But there’s also a great satisfaction in being able to name a plant just because we can. We feel closer to things we can name.

In April and early May, walking through fields and woods and peeking into gardens, we’ll often see plants with tiny, blue flowers that lift our spirits. They can be solitary, but more often, they are spreading.

Their pure blue flowers are classic forget-me-not style, the simplest of flower shapes with a starry look. Tiny, open flowers about as big as our smallest fingernail contain five rounded petals around a yellow, orange or white centre. But is it a forget-me-not? Perhaps it is, perhaps not.

Myosotis (forget-me-not) with a few pink flowers
Myosotis (true forget-me-not) with a few pink flowers

The three most likely candidates are all in the Boraginaceae family. Forget-me-nots are so charismatic and well loved, they spring to mind first, which means that many plants are misidentified.

Here’s a quick guide to narrow down the options:

  • If the plants are ankle high, or just a little taller, with slender green leaves held here and there, and flowers held in little clusters, consider forget-me-not (Myosotis).
  • If blue flowers are around knee height, held in airy sprays on wiry, leafless stems above a cluster of leaves, consider heartleaf (Brunnera).
  • If blue flowers are held fairly tight against pointed leaves on a tallish, sturdy flower spike, consider Green alkanet (Pentaglottis).

And a bit more detail on each:

Myosotis sylvestris | Forget-me-not
Myosotis (Forget-me-not)
Myosotis (Forget-me-not)

Each plant produces several flowering stems that divide and carry little clusters of blue forget-me-not flowers all over the plant, held facing upwards,  as if tiny flower posies are being presented to us. It’s an airy effect, especially as the flowers age and go to seed.

The whole plant is dainty. The green leaves are slender, ovalish, with a smooth outline and a central vein, held singly here and there on the flowering stem. They are a little hairy.

Wild forget-me-nots tend to be blue in the UK, but you can also buy white ones and pretty pink ones. Pink flowers sometimes appear on a largely blue plant. The central eye may be orange, yellow or white or a mix. Look closely and you’ll see a raised star shape around the eye as if the flower has been embossed.

Common species include Myosotis sylvestris (wood forget-me-not, mostly in woodland edges, access roads and hedgerows), Myosotis arvensis (field forget-me-not), Myosotis alpestris (alpine forget-me-not).

Brunnera macrophylla | Heartleaf

Other names include Siberian bugloss and, confusingly, Great forget-me-not.

Brunnera with wallflowers
Brunnera with wallflowers

The flowers are just as small, held in airy sprays well above the leaves. They are generally blue with a white eye, although Brunnera macrophylla ‘Betty Bowring’ is a pure white form.

Brunneras’ leaves are often beautifully marked with silver, golden yellow, cream or white although they can be plain green. Large, heart shaped leaves cover the ground at the base of the plant. Leaves on the flowering stems have a classic, pointed leaf shape.

Brunneras are prized for their leaves as much as their flowers

While Brunnera tolerates dry shade, it performs best with more water-retentive soil.

Pentaglottis sempervirens | Green alkanet
Green alkanet
Pentaglottis sempervirens (Green alkanet)

Green alkanet is much sturdier and taller than Myosotis and is thickly covered in pointed, hairy, veined leaves that are larger towards the bottom of the flowering stem. Flowers are produced at different heights on leafy, tapering towers and are held close to the leaves singly, and in small clusters.

The flowers are a very pure, gentian-like blue with slightly raised, white eyes. Each petal overlaps its neighbour. The buds have hints of pink or purple and some flowers have a purplish star shape around the centre, especially when they first open.

Green alkanet flowers over a relatively long period, particularly if cut back after the first flush. It is happy in dampish shade and can be hard to eradicate. Pollinators help it set seed readily. The tap roots in an established clump run deep and are brittle so tend to snap off when land is cleared, then spring back into life.

Other options

If you can rule the three most likely options out, other possibilities include Omphalodes, which can be pure blue, although my favourite is Omphalodes cappadocica ‘Starry Eyes’.

Apparently Borago (Borage), Symphytum (Comfrey) and Pulmonaria (Lungwort) are often confused with forget-me-not too, although their flowers are not all that similar.

Borage has nodding flowers with a prominent beak-like centre and green sepals that form a star shape on the back. The petals are pointed and often twisted, not rounded. Hairy buds are held in clusters.

Comfrey flowers are tube shaped, held in drooping clusters. Their colours are alluring, often with blue, white and pink on the same plant.

Pulmonaria has flowers that do look like a forget-me-not from the front, but from the side, they extend into a tiny horn shape and have green or dark leafy holders. The leaves are often spotted silver or white. Blue varieties such as ‘Blue Ensign’ are the most likely to be misidentified as forget-me-not.

Finally are they weeds? Each person reading this will have their own idea of that, which is quite as it should be. But one of the most beautiful spring flower borders I’ve ever seen had an underplanting of forget-me-nots in some places and green alkanet in others.

27 Replies to “Variations on a Theme: Forget-me-not, Heartleaf or Green Alkanet?”

  1. A blue flower ought not be named Green alkanet; that helps people like me not at all! The blue of this Green alkanet is wonderful, though, and I think that star shape you point out looks a lot like a sand dollar. How clever of it! I was tugged a bit toward the brunnera, but just a bit, until I saw that second photo of it. That cream and green and light blue took me completely by surprise — how beautiful! Ditto the photos of the Dorothy Clive garden. What a palette! Thank you!

    1. Green alkanet is a bit of a puzzle to me too. I had imagined it might be connected to natural dye, but I’ve learnt since the dye plant is different (Alkanna tinctoria) and in any case the dye produced is not green. So I’m left thinking the folk name might have come about because it is almost evergreen. I stand to be corrected as in all things!

  2. Lots of forget-me-nots here, and borage too (the bees love that). Lovely photos – especially the beautiful Myosotis sylvestris.

  3. In the wild, we sometimes see Cynoglossum grande, which some of us know as forget-me-not. It is really hounds’ tongue. Bloom is brief.

      1. It is one that is worth missing. However, I happen to like it because it is a native wildflower. I just wish I could move it when it appears in the driveway. The bulbs (or whatever the are) are difficult to find, and do not often survive transplant.

  4. The forget-me-nots in my garden have been flowering for a good few weeks now – their spring display is always a delight. My first-ever brunnera was delivered yesterday and it will be interesting to see the flowers it produces.

    Lovely photographs yet again.

  5. A year or two ago, a friend gave me some brunnera for my dry shade garden. I keep asking myself: What took me so long to add this wonderful plant to my beds?

  6. Forget-me-nots rule in this garden! I pulled out tons yesterday so that the other plants in the bed could breathe! I also have a pretty Brunnera and the flowers are very similar, but the leaves are the prize. I wouldn’t mind Green Alkanet but I haven’t seen it around here. In the broadleaf woodland in Ludlow it grew well and took me ages to ID and yes, it is evergreen. Lovely blues Susan xx

    1. Forget-me-nots are not that hard to pull up, fortunately – other than the effort of getting down to them, of course!

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