Bleeding Heart

I  never gave Bleeding Heart much thought until recently, when I set out to learn more about this plant that I’ve had many years. Surprisingly, many plants use the common name Bleeding Heart. Most of them belong to the genus Dicentra, which includes several species with variations on the name, like Pacific Bleeding Heart, Fringed Bleeding Heart and Old Fashioned Bleeding Heart. Some of these are wildflowers, growing in fields and woods and others are grown in gardens, such as the Old Fashioned Bleeding Heart outside my house.

If I did think about Bleeding Heart before now, it was probably to wonder why a lovely, delicate flower had such a gruesome name. In reality, it’s fairly easy to understand, the flower is heart shaped, with a small “drop” dangling under it. It seems most obvious in the Old Fashioned type, but all of them have something similar. Looking through the common names of the other species in Dicentra, I had to laugh at Longhorn Steer’s Head Bleeding Heart, Few Flowered Bleeding Heart, Turkey Corn and Dutchman’s Breeches. The names are mean to describe what the flower looks like, even if it is not always clear to me.

In general, Bleeding Hearts are perennials which grow in zones 4-8 or 3-9, depending on who you ask. Native to Asia and North America, they prefer well drained soil, in full or partial shade, with plenty of humus.  Most appear in the spring and bloom in late spring, with flowers in shades of pink, purple and white. They’re easy to transplant and have no major problems with insects or disease. All parts of the plant are poisonous if eaten. Touching the plant, especially the sap will cause skin irritation, so wear your gloves!

The big difference between the Old Fashioned Bleeding Heart and the other types is how long they stick around each year. Most bloom in late spring and keep blooming until a hard frost. The Old Fashioneds bloom, but then the foliage goes dormant, shriveling, turning brown and maybe even disappearing. There are a number of “solutions” to this disappearing act, but I don’t know for sure if any actually work. Some suggest watering very frequently after the flowers are finished, in an effort to keep the foliage looking good. Others say just to cut the plant back hard, cutting off 2/3 of the foliage, and hope for possible reblooming in the fall. My Old Fashioned plant does not look awesome, but it does not really look bad either, so I just leave it alone. Putting hostas or ferns or other plants around the Bleeding Heart can also help camouflage the unattractive foliage.

When it comes to acquiring more plants, Bleeding Hearts are said to grow seed pods just after the flowers are finished. If you wait for them to dry out, they will pop open and the seeds will fall to the ground, to spend the winter. This cold spell is important for their future. You can also put a paper bag over the seed pods and catch the seeds when they ripen, but they still have to be stored in a cold area for a period of time, before planting them in the spring. If you don’t want to bother with seeds, the plant can be propagated by dividing the roots in the spring, or late fall. I can’t remember ever seeing any seed pods on my plant, but I’m definitely going to be watching for them this year.


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One Response to “Bleeding Heart”

  1. Kem Says:

    I have Dutchman’s Britches growing wild in the lot behind our house! They do seem to self-seed and the foliage totally dies once we get hot temps. And I’ve seen rabbits munching the leaves. I never knew I wasn’t supposed to touch them, but I’ve never to them reacted either. Interesting article!

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