By Judith Irven, gardening expert, landscape designer and writer.
When the Bleeding Hearts bloom you know spring is here to stay
Everyone loves Bleeding Hearts! They bloom in late spring, when the weather is settled and ‘Old Man Winter’ has finally become a distant memory.
And their dainty flowers—each reminiscent of a little pink heart with a tiny drop of blood dripping from it— are perfectly complemented by their masses of delicate fern-like leaves. Many of us are familiar with the charming ‘Old Fashioned Bleeding Heart’, where the little hearts hang down from their arching stems like charms along a necklace.
We carry many different kinds of Bleeding Hearts and their near relatives —and all make delightful additions to the spring garden. Let’s take a look!
Wild Bleeding Hearts—exquisite plants from the mountains of Appalachia
The Wild Bleeding Heart, also known as the Fringed Bleeding Heart, or even the odd-named Turkey Corn, is a North American native found in the woodlands along the spine of Appalachian Mountains, from Southwestern Pennsylvania to North Carolina.
The Wild Bleeding Heart is also quite at home in our gardens. It thrives where the soil is slightly acidic and the summers are moist and cool, each plant gradually developing into a clump up to 18 inches wide and high.
It may come as a surprise to discover that, although the Fringed Bleeding Heart is usually considered a springtime flower, it actually blooms on and off all summer long. So plant it at the front of a shady border where you can appreciate its dainty personality throughout the season.
Careful hybridization brings us new varieties of Fringed Bleeding Hearts
Plant hybridizers are always seeking the opportunity to make new and better varieties by crossing closely related plant species.
And, in the case of the Dicentra genus, they experimented with crossing the Eastern Bleeding Heart, Dicentra eximia, with its Western counterpart, Dicentra formosa, as well as with a related plant from eastern Asia—Dicentra peregrina.
The results are some captivating cultivated varieties—or cultivars as they are often called— collectively referred to as Fern-leaf Type Bleeding Hearts. These include:
Dutchman’s Breeches—another North American native
The Fringed Bleeding Heart also has a lovely relative that belongs to the same Dicentra genus, known as Dutchman’s Breeches—Dicentra cucullaria.
One can imagine that, in times past, those small white flowers dangling from the stem reminded people of a row of sailor’s pantaloons drying on the wash-line—hence their picturesque name Dutchman’s Breeches.
Dutchman’s breeches are found growing wild in wooded areas across the entire eastern half of North America, so they make a great addition to our woodland gardens.
A single plant of Dutchman’s Breeches will eventually become a good-sized colony with mounds of feathery leaves and many flowering stalks—always a delightful sight. But it important to note that, unlike the Fringed Bleeding Heart, Dicentra cucullaria is a spring ephemeral, meaning that, as soon as the plants have flowered and set seed, they will go dormant for the remainder of the summer.
So while they look lovely in the spring garden, it is nice to surround them with plants like hostas to fill in the gaps for the remainder of the season.
And finally let’s not forget those charming Old-Fashioned Bleeding Hearts!
These are perhaps the most well-known type of Bleeding Heart and certainly the longest in cultivation. And, although they actually originated in Southeast Asia, you may remember them gracing your grandmother’s garden!
Their dainty pink and white flowers, hanging in rows from their arched stems, are beautifully set off above their soft ferny leaves.
The plants of the Old-Fashioned Pink Bleeding Hearts grow quite large—up to thirty inches high and wide, thus quite a bit larger than the Fringed Bleeding Hearts. But, where summers are hot, those Old Fashioned charmers will go dormant in mid-summer. So plan accordingly!
And, if you really love old-fashioned plants, be sure check out the special cultivars we carry:
With its pure white flowers, the White Bleeding Heart would make a beautiful companion with a pair of Old Fashioned Bleeding Hearts.
Gold Heart has brilliant golden-yellow leaves that would look stunning alongside some Blue Fescue grass.
Since Valentine is a more compact cultivar, for this one choose a spot that is closer to the front of the border.
One of America's most famous wildflowers, Dutchman's Breeches is a small, wild version of Bleeding Heart, with creamy white flowers so named for their resemble to a pair of upside-down, hung-to-dry pants. Blooming in early spring, the delicate fern-like foliage lasts on, changing from a gray-green to pale yellow. A simple yet striking addition to the shade or woodland garden. (Dicentra cucullaria)
Just for the record: a new name for the Old Fashioned Bleeding Hearts
Because of the similarity of their flowers, Old fashioned Bleeding Hearts (with a Latin name of Dicentra spectabilis) and the Fringed Bleeding Hearts (such as Dicentra eximia) were always considered to be part of the same Dicentra genus.
But attempts to create hybrids between Dicentra spectabilis and all other members of the Dicentra genus, have proven elusive, indicating that they are probably not that closely related after all.
So—just for the record— botanists have recently moved the Old Fashioned Bleeding Hearts into their own genus and given them a new Latin name: Lamprocapnos spectabilis, which is now used on many websites.
But, whatever their formal name, we gardeners still love them!!
Growing Bleeding Hearts and Dutchman’s Breeches in your garden
Since all Bleeding Hearts, as well as the closely related Dutchman’s Breeches, are woodland plants, plant them where they will be partially shaded throughout the season.
Loosen the soil and then add plenty of decayed leaves (leaf mould) or other organic matter from your compost pile to mimic their natural habitat.
Remember that all varieties of Old Fashioned Bleeding Hearts, as well as Dutchman’s Breeches, will go dormant in the summer. So mark the spots where they live and plant something else around them for the summer months.
Since the Fringed Bleeding Hearts and Dutchman’s Breeches are low-growing (less than 18” high) be sure to plant them at the front of the border, perhaps near the door or alongside a walkway, where you can enjoy them each time you step outside. And ,while most old fashioned Bleeding Heart varieties are somewhat taller, it is still nice to grow them where you can enjoy their delicate flowers up close.
Plant some this spring or fall and each year they will return to tell you ‘spring is here to stay’.
About the Author: Judith Irven is an accomplished Vermont landscape designer and garden writer, and she delights in helping people everywhere create beautiful gardens. You can visit her online at: OutdoorSpacesVermont.com.