Five Star Plants for Your Flower Garden: Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart
Dicentra spectabilis, more commonly known as old-fashioned bleeding heart, is an elegant, easy care perennial that has delighted generations of gardeners. Read on to learn why this spring-blooming, shade loving plant deserves a place in every home garden — including yours!
Dicentra spectabilis has a big presence in the garden. It is one of the first perennials to emerge in the spring, and takes less than a month to reach 3 or even 4 feet tall with an equal spread. The delicate, fern-like foliage is a perfect backdrop for the flowers and complements other woodland plants such as primrose, columbine, trillium, perennial geraniums and violets.
Unlike other dicentras, which flower on and off throughout the summer, old-fashioned bleeding heart is a spring ephemeral. This means it blooms early and then dies back to the ground, staying dormant until the following spring. This can be a benefit as long as you plan for it by planting other shade loving perennials nearby to cover the the gap. Good candidates include hostas, hellebores, astilbes, euphorbia and ferns.
Long considered a member of the dicentra family, old-fashioned bleeding heart is now recognized as a distinct genus and species. Its new scientific name is Lamprocapnos spectabilis, though for practical purposes, most gardeners will probably continue calling it Dicentra spectabilis.
Bleeding heart’s flowers are unique in all the world. The heart-shaped blossoms are comprised of two halves, with a “droplet” suspended below. When the flowers are in bloom, take a second to gently pull the halves apart and you’ll see why another common name for this plant is “lady in the bath.”
The flowers of the species Dicentra spectabilis are pink with a white droplet. There are also several cultivars including ‘Alba’ with all-white flowers and ‘Valentine’ with red and white flowers. You can expect the cultivars to be about a foot shorter than the species. So more like 2 to 3 feet tall.
Dicentra spectabilis blooms in early spring and displays its heart-shaped blossoms on long, arching stems. As a cut flower, bleeding heart is fragile and not terribly long-lasting. For this reason they are rarely available commercially. But for home gardeners, old-fashioned bleeding heart can be a spectacular addition to springtime arrangements. Combine it with other early bloomers such as lilacs, alliums, mock orange, flowering almond, late tulips, forget-me-nots and hellebores.
How to Be Successful with Bleeding Heart
The foliage of old-fashioned bleeding heart is sensitive to heat and bright sunlight. Planting it in partial shade is ideal. Full shade beneath a deciduous tree is also fine as long as the tree doesn’t take up all the soil moisture.
For best results, Dicentra spectabilis should be planted in soil that is rich in organic matter and retains some moisture throughout the growing season. Avoid soil that is soggy or extremely dry. Before planting, take time to enhance the planting area with compost or leaf mold. There’s no need to add fertilizer. Dicentra are actually quite sensitive to fertilizer so it’s best to let them draw nutrients directly from the soil.
When planting Dicentra spectabilis, position the crown (where roots meet stem) about 1” below the soil surface. Water well to settle the plant and make sure there are no air pockets around the roots. If possible, mulch the area with shredded leaves or compost. These organic mulches will suppress weeds, help retain moisture and gradually enrich the soil as they break down.
After your bleeding heart has finished flowering, let the leaves remain until they yellow and start looking ragged. At this point you may cut the foliage back to the ground. The plant may send up some new leaves or it may go directly into dormancy.
Old-fashioned bleeding heart dislikes being moved or divided. So if you want to make new plants, use a sharp spade to cut chunks from around the outside edges of the mother plant. Do this in early spring before the leaves have sprouted.