The common or old-fashioned bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) produces sprays of deep pink or white heart-shaped flowers.
This plant in the Fumariaceae family is hardy in zones 3-9. The powdery-green leaves are divided into three leaflets. Bleeding heart is native to eastern Asia (northern China, Korea and Japan). The plant was brought to England in 1810, but did not get established. This plant was introduced again after a Royal Horticultural Society plant exploration trip to the East in 1846, and soon became a common garden plant.
This herbaceous plant forms loose, bushy clumps up to 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide from brittle, fleshy roots. The reddish new foliage emerges from the ground in early spring and plants grow quickly to be one of the first flowering perennials in the spring. The green to pink stems are very fleshy. Heart-shaped flowers bloom in May and June. The unique 1-2 inch long, delicate-looking pendant flowers have two rose-pink outer petals and two white inner petals, with a white stamen protruding from the bottom.
This hardy perennial is best grown in well-drained soil in partially shaded areas. In most locations, plants prefer morning sun and afternoon shade. They also need well-drained soil and will rot if the soil remains too soggy. Bleeding heart has a summer resting period and by late summer, the leaves turn yellow and wither quickly in hot or dry weather (but sometimes last through the season in cool, moist conditions) going dormant entirely by August. By that time the large fleshy roots have stored lots of food and are preparing for the onset of cool temperatures.
As the soil temperature drops, “eyes” or crown buds form. From these eyes next year’s stems will develop. Several small growing points are within the eye. With time, these meristems become more fully developed, and gain the ability to flower. During this period, cold temperatures are needed to satisfy the winter dormancy requirement. When the stems die back completely to the ground they can be pulled out and discarded.
Plant bleeding heart with late-growing and flowering perennials, or plant annuals to hide space left by plants after they fade out. Bleeding heart has few pests, although aphids may occasionally infest particularly the inflorescences and slugs may feed on the leaves.
Other species of Dicentra often grown as ornamentals include D. eximia, eastern or fringed bleeding heart, and a native to eastern United States in zones 3 to 9. This bleeding heart in the Papaveraceae family grows only about 12-18 inches tall, with more finely divided leaves and smaller flowers than Dicentra spectabilis.
Dicentra eximia typically occurs on forest floors, rocky woods and ledges in the Appalachian Mountains. This bleeding heart has deeply-cut, fernlike, grayish-green, foliage which persists throughout the growing season and pink to purplish red, nodding, heart shaped flowers carried above the foliage on leafless, leaning stems.
Protruding inner petals of the flower appear to form a drop of blood at the bottom of each heart-shaped flower. Flower stems and basal leaves grow directly out of the scaly rootstock. Bloom begins in late spring.
In cooler climates flowering may continue throughout the summer, but in hotter climates flowering will generally stop in hot weather, with possible rebloom occurring only when the weather cools in late summer or early fall.
Another species D. formosa, the western or Pacific bleeding heart, a northwest U.S. woodland native, is more drought tolerant than the D. eximia species. This bleeding heart is in the Fumariaceae family. These plants are 10-18 inches tall and have heart-shaped pink, wine-colored, or white flowers that rise on racemes above fern-like green or blue-green foliage. D. formosa has a longer blooming season than D. spectabilis and retains their leaves through the growing season.
Bleeding heart plants can be divided in early spring every 3 to 4 years as needed. Bleeding heart is propagated by division in late fall or early spring, or from fresh seed.
Seeds are slow to germinate and require moisture stratification. Self-seeded plants will bloom in 2-3 years if not disturbed (transplanting may delay flowering for another year or more, although plants can be moved easily).
Dicentra spectabilis species include:
• Common or Old-fashioned Bleeding Heart: 24-36 inches tall, rose-pink flowers
• Alba: 24-36 inches tall, white flowers
• Pantaloons: 24-36 inches tall, white flowers, is more vigorous than Alba
• Valentine: 24-30 inches tall, red flowers
Dwarf Dicentra include:
• Burning Hearts: 10-12 inches tall, deep rose-red flowers, ferny foliage
• Luxuriant: 12-18 inches tall, deep rose flowers, ferny foliage ❖