(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 15, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
For many gardeners, one of the most elegant garden perennials is bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis. Even the species epithet says it all...spectacular! This Japanese native created quite a stir in Europe when first discovered since at the time, no other garden plants had such bizarre yet beautiful flowers. The arching racemes of pink, distinctly heart-shaped flowers are unmistakable. For those who have never grown bleeding heart, the early spring growth is also bright pink! The summer foliage is mat grey-green and quite fern-like on large mounding plants to 4 feet. Flowers are produced over a long period from late spring through to early summer. Add to this the inherent hardiness (zone 4), ease of propagation and culture, it is not surprising that this plant gained celebrity status overnight. This most exotic of flowers is now a standard perennial in many gardens throughout the temperate zones. Once quite rare but now readily available is the less vigorous white form called ‘Alba' or ‘Pantaloons'. However, the most spectacular of all is ‘Gold Heart' whose foliage is brilliant golden-yellow! The contrast between foliage and flower is striking. Bleeding heart does have one main drawback: the plants go summer dormant so you may be left with quite a large gap when the plants go dormant in mid-late summer, so plan accordingly.
Dicentra spectabilis 'Gold Heart' and 'Alba'
The next bleeding heart to capture the attention of gardeners were the two dwarf bleeding hearts of North America; D. eximia in the east and D. formosa in the west. These two species, while not as showy as the Japanese species, have two features in their favour; plants do not go dormant in summer and they are essentially ever-blooming from spring through fall. Their growth is so vigorous that they also make admirable ground-covers in shady areas. The two species are quite similar but formosa is the more floriferous and larger-flowered of the two with more selections available on the market. Dicentra eximia has narrow, light pink flowers and pale green foliage on plants about 12" tall. White forms called ‘Snowdrift' and 'Alba' also exist. Dicentra formosa has mid-pink, broader flowers and grey-green to blue-green foliage on plants 12-18" tall. ‘Bacchanal' is perhaps the most popular selection with grey-green foliage and wine-red flowers. ‘Aurora' is a white-flowered selection.
Close-up to show the difference in the bloom shape between D. eximia (left) and D. formosa (right)
There are several hybrid dwarf bleeding hearts on the market. They are hybrids involving D. eximia, D. formosa and the Himalayan D. peregrina, itself a difficult to grow, very dwarf species. Thankfully the hybrids are generally easy care. ‘Luxuriant', a cross between D. eximia and D. formosa, has very blue foliage, medium pink flowers and grows about 12-18" tall. ‘Zestful' is quite similar but has deeper reddish-pink flowers. Other hybrids include ‘Langtrees' (pale pink), ‘Silver Smith' (white with pink tint, green foliage), ‘Pearl Drops' (white with pink tint, blue-green foliage), ‘Adrian Bloom' (reddish-pink, blue-green foliage), ‘Bountiful' (pinkish purple, green foliage), ‘Margery Fish' (white, blue-green foliage), ‘Sweetheart' (white, green foliage), ‘Snowflakes' (creamy-white, green foliage) and ‘Stuart Boothman' (mottled pink, green foliage).
Some dwarf bleeding heart sepections and hybrids; left to right are 'Luxuriant', D. eximia 'Alba' and 'Langtrees'
‘Candy Hearts' is a smaller hybrid between D. eximia and D. peregrina. The foliage is also quite blue and the flowers darker pink than ‘Luxuriant' on plants 8-10" tall. The white-flowered version is called ‘Ivory Hearts'. ‘King of Hearts' is smaller again with dark pinkish-red flowers. It has all three of the dwarf bleeding hearts in its ancestry.
Among the most dwarf bleeding hearts are 'Ivory Hearts' and 'King of Hearts'
To a lesser degree, gardeners also grow the squirrelcorn, D. canadensis and dutchman's breeches, D. cucullaria, both which are native to eastern North America. Both bloom in mid-spring with similar-looking white flowers. Plants go dormant and disappear soon after flowering. While exquisite beauties, they are essentially fleeting flowers for the woodland garden.
Dicentra canadensis and D. cucullaria
Dicentra are primarily woodland plants hardy in zones 4-8. They prefer lightly shaded, evenly moist and fairly rich soil to look their best. They have brittle roots and rhizomes but it seems that as long as a piece of rhizome has an active growing point, they will regenerate into a new plant. The standard bleeding heart is best divided in late summer but the dwarf species and hybrids are so tough, they can be divided any time of the year, although early spring or late summer are best. If good soil moisture is maintained, they can tolerate full sun, but part-shade is where they thrive best. They can also tolerate deep shade but the flowering will be scarce. All have fragile stems and leaves, so avoid windy sites and as they start growth early in the season, avoid frost pockets too.
If you have a suitable site, you should definitely grow at least one of the bleeding heart species or hybrids. Their bizarre yet beautiful flowers are not like anything else you can grow in your garden. They are certainly among the most ‘exotic' plants that temperate zone gardeners can grow.
I would like to thank the following people for the use of their images: irmaly - Dicentra spectabilis 'Gold Heart': kniphofia - Dicentra spectabilis 'Gold Heart' and 'Alba': sanannie - Dicentra 'Luxuriant' and D. eximia 'Alba' and mygardens - Dicentra cucullaria