The old fashioned bleeding heart, dicentra spectabilis, is a flower that evokes nostalgic memories from early childhood. These perfect little pantaloons are rounded at the top with tips that spread out at the bottom. Petals from inside the heart can be seen protruding from the bottom tip of the flower. The hearts are displayed on leafless stems that arch slightly from the sheer number of flowers. These little lockets can be seen bobbing even in the slightest breeze and are an eye catcher in any garden.
Pink is the most common color of bleeding hearts, but there is also a white cultivar named Alba. I grow both colored varieties together so the blooming plant looks like a mass of pink and white hearts on the same bush. This plant with its fernlike foliage can grow 3 feet tall and 30 inches wide if conditions are right. Bleeding hearts grow best in moist, well-drained soil with dappled shade. They benefit from a fall application of compost as the plants are early spring bloomers. When growing conditions are ideal reseeding will take place. These small seedlings are easy to pull out and replant or share with a friend.
Bleeding hearts often go dormant in late spring or early summer when it begins to get hot. The leaves will start to turn yellow and the plant will appear to die back. This is normal. When I see this start to happen I cut the foliage down to ground level. This plant has a sap that may be an irritant to the skin so I suggest you wear gloves when doing this. Remember to keep watering the bare growing spot throughout the summer months as the dormant plant still needs this moisture. If the soil is allowed to dry out too much, the clump may be smaller in size the following spring. If you desire, you can plant some mid- sized annuals in this bare area to help fill in the gap created by the dormant plant.
Bleeding hearts are a very resilient plant. The plants in my garden had grown a good foot in height prior to the extreme cold weather we experienced a few weeks ago. Needless to say, this new foliage soon became a heap of mushy leaves, which led me to cut the plant down almost to ground level. Within a few days new growth began to emerge from the center of the plant and it now looks as it did prior to the cold snap
Dwarf bleeding hearts have an extended bloom time as they do not go dormant in the summer months. Dwarf cultivars are hybrids of dicenta exima and dicenta formosa. These fern leaf bleeding hearts cross, or hybridize, so seedlings are more likely to be different from the parent plant. This bleeding heart grows 18 to 24 inches tall and equally as wide. The hearts grow in lighter shades of red to white than the old fashioned variety. Dwarf fern leaf bleeding heart also prefers part shade and moist, well drained soil.
Bleeding hearts look great interspersed with ferns, hostas, and pulmonaria. It is a perfect plant for woodland borders or naturalizing. Once it is established it will last for many years. No wonder it is an all time favorite perennial.
Until next time . . . happy gardening.
Nina Binkley, UW Extension Master Gardener volunteer