Bleeding heart blossoms are beautifully arranged along gracefully arching stems - the inner white petals are the "blood" dripping from the heart-shaped pink petals.
Bleeding heart is an herbaceous perennial that forms a bushy clump 2-4 ft (60-120 cm) tall arising from a thick, fleshy tap root. The pale green leaves are 6-16 in (15-40 cm) long and 4-8 in (10-20 cm) wide, and consist of three leaflets, each divided into three lobes. Arching fleshy stems bear racemes of 3-15 heart shaped flowers that have rose-pink outer petals with reflexed tips and white inner petals that protrude beyond the outer ones. (Like a heart dripping white blood – not a very pleasant name for such a lovely flower!) The puffy flowers, each around an inch (2.5 cm) long, dangle in single file along the flower stems from late spring to early summer. Bleeding heart usually dies back to its roots in late summer after it has flowered, returning reliably the following spring. The cultivar ‘Gold Heart’ has yellowish leaves. A form with white flowers is called Dicentra spectabilis f. alba.
Location Dicentra spectabilis occurs naturally in Siberia, northern China, Korea and Japan where it grows in moist woodlands, usually in mountainous areas.
Bleeding heart likes a neutral to slightly alkaline soil that is fertile and rich in organic matter. Light: Grow bleeding heart in light to partial shade. If the soil stays reliably moist, the plant can tolerate full sun, especially in the cooler climates. Moisture: Bleeding heart likes a soil that is moist but not waterlogged. Don’t let the soil dry out in spring and summer. Hardiness: USDA Zones 3 - 8. Bleeding heart also may be grown in Zone 2 with winter protection and possibly in Zone 9 if positioned in full shade and grown in a moisture retentive soil. Propagation: Seed of bleeding heart may be sown as soon as ripe and the plants will often self-seed under ideal growing conditions. If seed is to be stored for more than a couple weeks, it will be necessary to chill the seeds for several weeks before they will germinate. The white flowered bleeding heart (sometimes referred to as the cultivar ‘Alba’) is a true botanical form and, (true to form) comes true from seed. Plants also may be divided (carefully) when dormant in late summer, and 3-4 in (7-10 cm) root cuttings can be removed and started then as well. For best results, give the plant 2-3 years of growth before attempting to divide.
The bleeding heart plant grows into a large mound that blooms in spring.
Bleeding heart is an old fashioned traditional, but still popular, cottage garden favorite. This is an excellent plant for the woodland garden or a semi-shady border. They look great in a mass or as single specimens. Because the foliage dies back in summer, bleeding heart is best planted amongst ferns or shade loving perennials such as (for example) hostas (Hosta sp.), lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), or common periwinkle (Vinca minor). These and other shade loving plants (See Floridata’s list of shade plants) will fill the gaps when bleeding heart bleeds out in late summer. Bleeding heart is great as a cut flower, often lasting two weeks in the vase. Potted dormant plants can be taken into a warm greenhouse in mid-winter and forced to bloom in early spring. Florists usually offer the lovely bleeding heart around Valentine’s Day.
Bleeding heart is attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds and is resistant to predation by deer and rabbits.
Recent authors have placed common bleeding heart in the genus Lamprocapnos, but most people know it by its former name, Dicentra spectabilis. There are around 20 species in the genus (whatever you call it) in Asia and North America. Dutchman’s breeches (D. cucullaria) and fringed bleeding heart (D. eximia) occur in eastern North America and Pacific bleeding heart (D. formosa) in the west. There are a dozen or more garden cultivars created by hybridizing the North American species, but we don’t know of any hybrids from the Asian D. spectabilis.
All parts of bleeding heart are reported to cause stomach upset if ingested, and some people get a skin rash from contact with the foliage or sap.