Many seasoned gardeners agree; no garden would be complete without the quintessential Bleeding Heart.
For generations, this fairytale flower has been the focal point for numerous garden designs. The bleeding heart’s bloom forms the shape of a perfect heart and growers cannot seem to resist its charms. There are some specifics to learn about successfully growing the bleeding heart, but once mastered, the bleeding heart can be counted on year after year.
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Profile of the Bleeding Heart
- Common Names – Bleeding heart, lyre flower, lady’s locket, lady in the bath. Dicentra often goes by the common name bleeding heart because of the shape and appearance of the flowers.
- Botanical Gens – Dicentra spectabilis.
- Plant Category: Bleeding heart plants are herbaceous perennials.
- Bloom Time and Color: Bleeding heart blooms early spring through early summer and usually has pink, heart-shaped blooms. Some dicentra plants are available with flowers in white, cream or darker pink, near-purple color.
- Height – 2-3 feet
- Width – 2 feet
- Light preference – Partial to full shade.
- Soil type – Moist, humus rich and well drained. Neutral to slight alkalinity.
- Plant possibilities – Potted plants can be added to garden whenever available. Sow from seed after the dangers of frost has past, and be gentle with roots when separating at plant base. Flower will freely self seed.
- Foliage: The leaves are deeply lobed and some, even fern-like with fine cut leaves making bleeding hearts a beautiful addition to many gardens.
- Growth Habit: Dicentra plants have a mounding growth habit with long, arching flower stems.
- Dimensions: Most bleeding hearts grow between 1-3′ tall and wide.
- Preferred Conditions: Dicentra are hardy zones 2b-10 and prefer dappled shade and cool conditions.
This sentimental plant has been solely responsible for providing bonding moments for gardening mothers and daughters for many years. Its dainty heart shaped flower, dangling from slender stems, on a lush plant profuse with blooms, is an inspirational sight. Glenna Blair Rieppel, a consummate gardener from Pennsylvania, remembers a story passed down from her grandmother. Delicately disassembling the flower and describing what everyone got for Christmas. “Mother received two pretty pink shoes, Father got two fishing hooks, Sister a pair of ballerina slippers, and Brother found a baseball bat.”
Over the years, stories have changed and the mystery has grown, but either way, the bleeding heart continues to inspire the imagination.
Origin and History of the Bleeding Heart
Originally from the Orient, the bleeding heart traveled to Europe in 1847 along with British botanist, Robert Fortune. Fortune was on an expedition for exotic plants and he returned from his voyage with a single specimen of this exquisite perennial. Local growers were quite taken with the bleeding heart’s enchanting flower, and they began flourishing in Victorian gardens everywhere.
The bleeding heart’s scientific name is Dicentra spectabilis and is often referred to as the old fashioned or Japanese bleeding heart. And there are two North American varieties; the fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia), from the eastern United States, and the western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), from the western U.S. Neither of the America’s plants are as large or spectacular.
Using Bleeding Heart in the Garden Landscape
Dicentra pairs nicely with many cottage garden plants such as hardy geranium, foxglove or daylilies. Use other shade-loving plants like hostas, brunnera and hellebores to combine with bleeding hearts in the part shade garden.
Seasons of Interest
Spring flowers and foliage make a beautiful addition to the early garden, and the plant will often come back with fern-like foliage in the cool, fall weather.
Uses in the Garden
Use bleeding heart for a beautiful spring garden, shady spot under ornamental deciduous trees or with other old-fashioned cottage garden plants.
Varieties and Cultivars:
Fringed Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia)
Fringed bleeding heart is a small variety of bleeding heart that grows native in the Eastern United States. The plant will often naturalize in a woodland setting and is used in cut flower arrangements as well. The fringed bleeding heart grows about 12-18″ tall and has fine cut foliage with a long bloom season.
- ‘Alba’ and ‘Snowflakes’– Both of these dicentra are white flowering variety.
Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis)
The most commonly available bleeding heart and one of the larger dicentra variety for the garden landscape. The foliage is less deeply cut than other bleeding hearts but has the same, graceful feel.
- ‘Gold Heart’– A unique bleeding heart, the ‘Gold Heart’ cultivar has lighter, golden-green color foliage creating a bright spot in the dappled shade garden.
- ‘Alba’– The white flowering form of D. spectabilis, the white bleeding heart grows 2-3 feet tall.
Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
A low-growing wild flower, Dutchman’s breeches is in the same genus as bleeding hearts. While the flowers are equally graceful in appearance, the stems grow upright rather on arching stems like bleeding heart.
How to Grow the Bleeding Heart
Bleeding hearts should be planted in rich soil that is proficiently draining, and in full to partial shade. The lush plant will grow to roughly 3 feet by 3 feet, and should be provided with ample room for adequate air flow. Also, the plant “unfurls” its blooms, so for the most advantageous showing, it is best not to crowd the bleeding heart plant.
Bleeding hearts become dormant and die back completely in mid-summer, so most gardeners prefer to plant them further back to keep this dormancy less noticeable. For a more efficient solution, prune the plant back after it finishes flowering. The trimmed plant is then encouraged to emit lush green foliage through the fall.
Whether its following a tradition or starting anew, gardening enthusiasts everywhere are raising a toast and celebrating this lovely flowering plant and its promise for life, happily ever after.