It isn’t an attractive name, but bleeding heart accurately describes what the flowers of this perennial look like. One of the more unusually-shaped flowers you’ll find in gardens, each arching stem holds a row of puffy, heart-shaped blossoms with a white or pink tip. Despite the off-putting name, bleeding heart (Dicentra spp.) is a charming, underused plant that merits a spot in every spring garden.
Fleshy red stems emerge in early spring, unfurling green or blue-green leaves, followed by racemes of those heart-shaped flowers in pink, white, or red. Plants bloom in May and June, and sometimes again in summer, depending on the species.
After flowering there are long, dangling seedpods. Bleeding heart can reseed, but not annoyingly so.
The foliage dies back in midsummer. Like the fading leaves of spring bulbs, bleeding heart looks best when planted among perennials that hide its yellowing foliage.
Good companion plants are hostas, ferns, woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata), campanula, tiarella, columbine, astilbe, geranium, and lungwort.
How to Grow
Bleeding heart has a wide range: USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 to 9.
Plants need part shade but can take full sun in cooler climates if the soil is kept moist. Morning sun and afternoon shade is the perfect combination.
Plants require moist – but not waterlogged – soil rich in organic matter. Add compost or some granular fertilizer at planting. Ideal soil pH is 6.0-6.5 but will be okay if the pH is a bit higher.
Bleeding heart is sold two ways: either in a pot with soil, or bareroot. Plant a potted bleeding heart with the crown of the plant at soil level. Bareroot plants should be planted deeper, with the crown 2” below the soil surface.
Mulch after planting to keep soil cool, but do not allow mulch to touch the stems of the plant.
In the fall, cut the foliage back and cover with mulch once the ground freezes.
The roots are brittle, which, while not impossible, makes it challenging to transplant.
There are about 15 species of Dicentra. Native to Asia and North America, these are among the ones most commonly available.
D. spectabilis ‘Valentine’.
Dicentra spectabilis are native to Asia. Plants go dormant in midsummer, but cut the plant back hard after flowering and it may regrow and reflower.
In addition to the regular pink-flowered D. spectabilis varieties, there are a few with different flower or foliage colors:
‘Valentine’: Vivid red flowers with white tips and deep green foliage on a plant two to three feet tall and wide.
D. spectabilis ‘Alba’. Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.
‘Alba’: White flowers and light green foliage. To thirty inches in height.
D. spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’. Photograph by Hardyplants at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
‘Gold Heart’: Electric yellow-green foliage and pink flowers. Two to three feet tall.
D. formosa and hybrids – Also known as Western or Pacific bleeding heart. Native to the northwestern U.S. These are more tolerant of sun and heat and do not go dormant. Will bloom all summer if spent flowers are removed.
Two D. formosa varieties are:
‘Fire Island’: Also known as fern leaf bleeding heart. Blue-green, finely-cut foliage, and deep pink flowers with lighter pink drops. A smaller plant, just fifteen inches tall and eighteen inches wide.
‘Pink Diamonds’: Pale pink flowers and blue green foliage on a smaller plant that grows only sixteen inches tall and wide. Hybrid. Can take more sun than other Dicentras.
D. eximia – Eastern or fringed bleeding heart. Native to North America. A smaller plant (under two feet) with more finely-cut foliage and pale pink flowers. A lovely native, but a bit harder to find.
As well as a stunning addition to the spring landscape, plants are deer resistant, attract bees and hummingbirds, and make terrific, long-lived cut flowers.
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