One of the delights of the spring perennial flower garden are bleeding heart plants and my grandfather had some magnificent specimens in his garden. (Dicentra is the horticultural name but we all call them bleeding hearts). Here’s how to grow them successfully.
Do Not Eat This Plant
Known also as Dutchman’s breeches, staggerweed (it is poisonous) and heart’s ease the Dicentra family are perennial favorites (excuse the pun).
A beginning note is that the plant produces alkaloids and if you eat enough of the plant (why you’d do that is beyond me) you might get a narcotic effect. The old herbals describe the plant as narcotic and used for the treatment of syphilis, scrofula, skin infections as well as “female disorders”.
It is not recommended for backyard medicine or herbal use.
This is a shade loving, forest-type of plant with succulent (water-filled) leaves. It thrives in shade with even soil moisture. It does not grow well (if at all) in dry shade.
- Hardiness – USDA zone 3 (good tough plant)
- Bloomtime – early spring for most – longer for some (see below for long-blooming varieties)
- Propagation: easiest by division in very early spring. Seed is possible if it’s really fresh, but it’s a witch to germinate successfully and I tried several times in my nursery (failed) If you know what you’re doing, you can take tip cuttings of D. spectabilis (old-fashioned bleeding heart) and they will root. But even with high-end commercial propagation systems, I had hit or miss success. My .02 – stay with division.
- Planting Distance apart: Plant the short varieties 18 inches apart and the taller ones 24 to 30 inches apart. They do not like clay soils but prefer a well-drained organic soil.
- Plant Height – depends on variety – from 12 – 36 inches (see below)
- Colors – red, pinks, whites
Some New Long-Blooming Varieties
Growing in Sun
This plant prefers to grow in the shade but if you give it enough water, it will tolerate a bit more sunshine. It may go dormant in mid-summer (the plants says I have enough sunshine now – I’m going to sleep) and then reappear the following spring if you’re growing it in the sun. Full hot sunshine will stress the plant and you may find it won’t survive for as long as its shaded cousins.
Plants to Look For
There are two main types of bleeding heart plants you’ll find in garden centers.
The first are the old-fashioned ones my grandfather grew in his garden. Tall, early spring blooming with pinkish heart-shaped flowers.
The second are more modern bleeding heart plants bred from crossing some shorter forms to give us 12-18 inch tall varieties that bloom for a long time.
Old Fashioned Bleeding Hearts
Dicentra spectabilis – 36-48 inches tall, blooms in very early spring. The species is pink but there’s a white-flowering form called ‘Alba’ and a gold leaf form called ‘Gold Heart’.
I’ve grown all of these plants and like them very, very much. The gold leaf plant was lost in a garden shuffle a few years ago but it’s well worth having if you have the right spot for it. It isn’t as aggressive as the other two.
Here’s an online source of bleeding hearts.