Bleeding Heart: An Old-fashioned Charmer

One of the most well-known and well-loved of the spring ephemerals is the old-fashioned Bleeding Heart, a graceful ornamental with rose-pink, nodding, heart-shaped flowers hanging off of arching stems. Bleeding Heart’s unique blooms delight children, and the plant’s elegant appearance enhances cottage gardens and shady retreats.

Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra spectabilis) are native to northern China and Japan, and were discovered and brought to England by a plant explorer of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1846.  The name Dicentra was derived from the Greek dis (“twice”) and kentron (a “spur”), in reference to the two hooks on each bloom, and spectabilis refers to the plant’s “showy” or “spectacular” appearance.

Although classified as shade plants, Bleeding Hearts grow best in light shade to full sun in New England. They thrive in humus-rich, well-drained soil, and will rot of the soil remains too wet. The plants grow in loose clumps, 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide. The reddish new foliage emerges from the ground in early spring and forms into powdery green leaves on fleshy stems. Bleeding Hearts flower in early May to mid summer, with each stalk bearing up to 15 individual flowers. The plants go dormant in mid to late summer and the yellowing foliage can be cut back hard at that time. The stems can be pulled out and discarded once they die back completely. Bleeding Hearts can be divided in spring or after they die back in late summer, but care must be taken with their brittle roots.

With their graceful foliage and heart-shaped flowers, Bleeding Hearts make a spectacular show in the May garden with tulips and forget-me-nots, sweet woodruff and lily of the valley at their feet. Since the foliage dies back in midsummer, I have planted mine in areas where other perennials will fill in and obscure the yellowing foliage – in back of hostas, hardy geraniums and astilbe, which come out later in the spring to fill in as the Bleeding Heart declines.

In addition to the common Bleeding Heart, there are several other noteworthy varieties including the all-white Dicentra spectabilis ‘Alba’ and the cherry-red ‘Valentine” with its ferny gray-green foliage. A real show-stopper is the recently introduced ‘Gold Heart’ with its bright yellow foliage and rose-pink flowers. Its long-lasting foliage virtually glows in the garden. Fringed Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia) is a beautiful choice for the woodland garden, with its ferny foliage, smaller size (about 12” high) and petite flowers. Though less striking than the spectabilis cultivar, eximia blooms longer, retains its foliage throughout the growing season and is available in pink, white or the new red ‘Burning Hearts’.

With their heart-shaped flowers, Bleeding Hearts are a favorite with children. My kids loved to pick them and drape the florets over their ears as earrings, and Bleeding Heart  flowers always graced the table for my Mother’s Day breakfast. There is an old children’s story told about the flowers that goes something like this:

The story of the bleeding heart

Once upon a time there was a prince that loved a princess who took no notice of him. To get the princess's attention and prove his love, he brought her amazing gifts from far and wide. One day he came across two magical pink bunnies and offered them both to the princess. (Storyteller pulls off the two outer pink petals and sets each on it sides to show the animals.)
The princess was unmoved by the rabbits so, he tried again and presented her with beautiful dangly earrings. (The two inner white petals are separated and held up next to the storyteller’s ears for display.)
 Still, the princess paid him no attention. The prince was so distraught over being spurned that he took a dagger and stabbed himself. (The remaining center of the flower is shaped like an outline of a heart with a line down the center. The heart is held up, the dagger-like line is removed, and the storyteller plunges the "knife" through the heart's center.)
 The princess, realizing too late that she did love the prince, cried out, "My heart shall bleed for my prince forever more!" and her heart bleeds to this day.