By: Becca Badgett, Co-author of How to Grow an EMERGENCY Garden
Blooms of the bleeding heart plant (Dicentra spectabilis) appear in early spring adorning the garden with attention-getting, heart-shaped flowers borne on arching stems. Attractive bluish-green foliage emerges first as the plant wakes from dormancy and flowers of the bleeding heart may be pink and white or solid white as with the bleeding heart cultivar ‘Alba’.
How to Grow Bleeding Hearts
Care for bleeding heart includes keeping the soil consistently moist by regular watering. The bleeding heart plant likes to be planted in organic soil in a shady or part shade area. Work compost into the area before planting the bleeding heart plant in fall or spring.
Organic mulch breaks down over time to supply nutrients and helps retain moisture. Growing bleeding hearts need a cool, shady area for optimum bloom in warmer southern zones, but farther north this specimen may bloom in a full sun location.
An herbaceous perennial, the bleeding heart plant dies back to the ground as the heat of summer arrives. As the bleeding heart plant begins to yellow and wither away, foliage may be cut back to the ground as a part of care for bleeding heart. Do not remove the foliage before it turns yellow or brown; this is the time when your bleeding heart plant is storing food reserves for next year’s growing bleeding hearts.
Bleeding heart flower care includes regular fertilization of the growing plant. When foliage emerges in spring, time-release plant food may be worked into the soil around the plant, as may additional compost. This is an important step in growing bleeding heart, as it encourages more and longer lasting blooms.
Many are surprised that growing bleeding hearts is so simple. Once you are aware of how to grow bleeding hearts, you may want to use them to brighten dark and shady areas.
Seeds of the growing bleeding heart may add more plants to the garden, but the surest method of propagation is to divide clumps every few years. Carefully dig up the roots of the bleeding heart, remove roots that are dried up and divide the rest. Plant these into other areas of the garden for an early spring show.
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Read more about Bleeding Heart
How to Grow and Care for Bleeding Heart Plants
The Bleeding Heart is an extremely cold-hardy (USDA zones 3-9), mounding plant with finely cut,
fern-like foliage on graceful 2-3 foot arching stems topped with pretty, heart shaped, 1" flowers.
Bleeding Hearts produce their blooms in late spring or early summer,
then they may die back entirely, and remain dormant until the following spring.
Dicentras are excellent plants for any shade garden or woodland setting
and are ideal for planting among your Ferns, Primroses, and Hostas.
How to Grow Bleeding Heart
Find out how to grow bleeding heart, a low-maintenance perennial for shade, and how to care for it in your garden.
Bleeding Heart 'King of Hearts'
'King of Hearts' Dicentras are showy companions for hostas and other shade-loving perennials.
Photo by: Walters Gardens, Inc.
'King of Hearts' Dicentras are showy companions for hostas and other shade-loving perennials.
What Is Bleeding Heart?
Dicentra, also known as bleeding heart, is an easy-to-grow perennial for USDA Zones 3 to 9. The plants thrive in cool, moist, shady areas and take their name from their heart-shaped blooms, which usually open in early spring and attract thirsty hummingbirds. The charming flowers are available in white, pink and red with fern-like foliage.
When you're shopping for these traditional cottage garden favorites, "Know that there are two distinct types," says Matt Mattus, author of Mastering the Art of Flower Gardening: A Gardener's Guide to Growing Flowers, From Today's Favorites to Unusual Varieties. "There are dwarf, compact types with blueish, ferny foliage and dark red slender flowers used as ground covers, and the taller, classic 'Alice-in-Wonderland' type of bleeding hearts with dangling flowers on arching stems."
Bleeding Heart is a Great Deer-Resistant Plant
Give Bambi the brush-off by filling your landscape with deer resistant perennials.
Bleeding hearts are one of several Dicentra species. Old-fashioned bleeding hearts, or common bleeding hearts, are known botanically as Lamprocapnos spectabilis (formerly Dicentra spectabilis). Depending on the variety, they can grow six inches to three feet tall in part sun to shade. They are typically spring bloomers and like rich, moist soil with a neutral to slightly acidic pH. "Be vigilant when reading labels," Mattus warns. Lamprocapnos is a new name for the Dicentra spectabilis plants, and not all nurseries and landscape designers are using it yet.
Dicentra White Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart
White Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart
Pacific bleeding hearts are Dicentra formosa, also known as Western bleeding hearts. These pink beauties have blue-green foliage and tolerate part to full shade. They grow 10" to 12" tall, start blooming in very early spring and may bloom into the summer if kept dead-headed.
Fringed bleeding hearts, or Dicentra eximia, are wildflowers native to the Eastern United States, where they grow in shaded woodlands. The plants reach 12" to 24" high with fern-like or fringed blue-green foliage. Flowers can be white, light pink or dark pink, and their stems are more upright than those of old-fashioned bleeding hearts. If you want to grow them, buy them from a reputable source and don't dig them up from the wild. The plants dislike being moved and seldom survive when transplanted.
How to Grow Bleeding Heart Plants
Give most types of bleeding hearts a spot in partial shade, where they're protected from the hot sun. Start bare-root plants in early spring or potted plants any time during the growing season.
Dig holes for the plants as deep as their roots are long, and about twice as wide as the root balls, if you are planting potted plants. Remove any rocks, sticks or other debris from the holes. Bleeding hearts like soil with humus and good organic matter, so add compost and leaf mold if you need to improve your planting site.
Put bare-root plants into the holes so the crowns are two inches below the surrounding soil (small varieties can be planted with the crowns an inch below the soil line). Backfill the holes and gently firm the soil around the roots. Water thoroughly after planting. Bleeding hearts do best when they absorb their nutrients from the soil, so don't add any fertilizer at planting time. Instead, give them a balanced, slow-release fertilizer or side-dress with compost when new growth appears next spring.
Mulch with compost or shredded leaves, which will eventually enrich the soil while also retaining moisture and holding down weeds.
How to care for Bleeding Heart?
Bleeding heart plants require moist and fertile soil, rich in neutral or slightly alkaline humus.
Bleeding hearts are best on the partial shade. Because it’s so early in bloom, planting near a deciduous tree is a good place. Plants will grow and grow before the tree leaves, and when the bleeding heart needs protection from the summer sun, the tree will provide it.
From spring to winter, water regularly to keep the soil moist but not immersed. Bleeding hearts do not tolerate wet soil in winter or dry soil in summer.
There are no serious disease or pest problems, although aphids can be sensitive. Protect new growth from slugs. Fertilize depends on the quality of your soil. If you have a rich organic soil that is changed every year, you won’t have to feed the plant at all.
Dicentra ‘Luxuriant’ K. Van Bourgondien / 800-437-7501
Dicentra ‘Bacchanal’ by George Papadelis
Fern-leaf bleeding heart boasts versatility, durability, and beauty. It differs from its cousin, old-fashioned bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), in many ways. Old-fashioned bleeding heart can grow up to 4 feet tall and equally wide. The common form produces the classic white “heart” shaped flowers that “bleed” rosy red “drips” on either side of each flower. The blossoms emerge in spring and gracefully cascade from arching stems. Flowers last 6 or more weeks, but the plants usually go dormant by summer. They are therefore best planted in the rear of the border behind summer bloomers. In contrast, fern-leaf bleeding heart rarely grows over 15 inches, will bloom almost all summer long without going dormant, has handsome cut-leaf foliage, and has smaller “non-bleeding” flowers. These are available in a range of leaf and flower colors that provide gardeners with many choices for their shadier spots.
Fern-leaf bleeding heart is a North American native that can actually be divided into two very similar species. The western species, Dicentra formosa (western bleeding heart), occurs naturally from northern California to British Columbia while our eastern species, Dicentra eximia (fern-leaf or fringed bleeding heart), is found from New York to Georgia. Breeders in America and Europe have used these to develop several interesting varieties with flowers that range from white to pink to lavender to deep red. ‘Luxuriant’ is the most readily available variety and has cherry red flowers above 12- to 15-inch blue-green foliage. For an excellent white, try ‘Snowdrift’ or ‘Snowflakes’ both have blue-green leaves and grow 10 to 14 inches tall. For one of the deepest reds and almost silver-blue leaves, look for ‘Bacchanal’ at only 8 to 10 inches tall. Most of the newer varieties have beautiful foliage that is worth considering for any semi-shady site.
Fern-leaf bleeding hearts form slow-spreading clumps that require no maintenance all season long. They can tolerate the coldest of winters and are not too particular about soil type as long as it isn’t too heavy. They do, however, thrive in moist, fertile soil. Plants will tolerate full sun, but prefer a semi-shaded site. Too much shade, however, will discourage flowering, which typically lasts from spring until fall. Avoid positioning this plant where competition from tree roots will occur since the lack of water and nutrients can make bleeding hearts only last for a few years. To maintain the healthiest, longest-blooming plants, divide the crown every 3 or 4 years in early spring or late summer. When planting new divisions, take advantage of this opportunity to amend your soil with organic matter such as compost, manure, or aged pine bark. Once established, this disease- and insect-resistant plant will effortlessly flower for years without requiring staking, deadheading, or pruning.
The relatively small size of fern-leaf bleeding heart makes it ideal for the front of the shady garden. It can also be used nestled between boulders in your rock garden or planted among trillium and Jack-in-the-pulpits in your woodland garden. Its tidy, bluish foliage and long season of bloom combine to make it useful as an edging plant too. The blue-green ferny leaves are contrasted beautifully by the bold purple-red leaves of coral bells (Heuchera) or by the large gold leaves of Hosta ‘Daybreak.’ Plant fern-leaf bleeding heart with an ornamental grass for shade such as golden hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’). Its fine, wispy gold leaves against the ferny blue-green leaves of the bleeding heart would provide a long-lasting combination of different colors and textures.
George Papadelis is the owner of Telly’s Greenhouse in Troy, MI.
Dicentra eximia ‘Snowdrift’ Walters Gardens
Dicentra ‘King of Hearts’ www.whiteflowerfarm.com
At a glance: Fern-leaf Bleeding Heart
Botanical name: Dicentra eximia (dy-SEN-truh eks-IM-ee-uh)
Plant type: Perennial
Plant size: 10 to 15 inches tall and wide
Habit: Clump-forming mound
Hardiness: Zone 3
Flower color: Pink, deep pink, cherry red, deep red, white
Flower size: 1 inch long, narrow heart-shaped
Bloom period: Spring to fall
Leaf color: Blue-green, gray-green
Leaf size: 4-12 inches long, fern-like
Light: Partial shade
Soil: Well-drained, fertile, moist
Uses: Front of the shade border rock garden
Companion plants: Hostas (smaller, gold- and blue-leaved varieties), purple-leaved coral bells (Heucheras)
Remarks: Grown in the proper conditions, may self-seed in the garden. Divide every 3 to 4 years. Avoid dry soil areas in the summer.
The Plant Guide
Don't let its delicate appearance fool you: Western bleeding heart is hardy and tenacious. This elegant, herbaceous perennial spreads slowly from rhizomes to form drifts of soft blue-green, ferny foliage in shady woodland areas. Above the leaves in late spring, pink heart-shaped flowers hang gracefully from long, arched stems, attracting scores of hummingbirds but not the local deer. It is surprisingly drought tolerant during the summer months.
Noteworthy CharacteristicsFerny foliage pink, heart-shaped flowers attracts hummingbirds.
CareGrow in partial shade and moist, fertile soil.
PropagationDivide in early spring.
- Genus : Dicentra
- Plant Width : 1 to 3 feet
- Zones : 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
- Plant Height : 6 to 12 inches
- Characteristics : Attracts Hummingbirds, Showy Foliage
- Tolerance : Deer Tolerant, Drought Tolerant
- Uses : Ground Covers
- Bloom Time : Late Spring
- Maintenance : Low
- Moisture : Medium Moisture
- Light : Partial Shade
- Plant Type : Perennials
- Flower Color : Pink
- Plant Seasonal Interest : Spring Interest