Bleeding Heart (Dicentra Spectabilis): An Old-Fashioned Spring Perennial

Updated on May 1, 2019
Dolores Monet profile image

An avid gardener for over 40 years, Dolores has landscaped for private clients and maintained one client's small orchid collection.

The beautiful bleeding heart.
The beautiful bleeding heart. | Source

How and Where Do Bleeding Hearts Grow?

Bleeding heart plants bloom in the spring. From late April until June, the 24" - 36" plants produce delicate blooms that dangle from arching stems. The flowers resemble dark pink or white hearts with smaller petals below.

The beautifully lobed foliage remains green in northern climates if kept moist through the summer months. In warmer areas, the foliage begins to turn yellow after the flowers have faded, but this lovely perennial is well worth it. Simply plant summer annual flowers around it to hide the yellowed leaves.

They prefer shade and rich, moist, well-drained soil. They also do well in clay in either mildly acidic or mildly alkaline soil.

Faeries seem to lurk in its shadows. This long-time garden favorite was brought to the West by famed Victorian plant collector, Robert Fortune. The Royal Horticultural Society sent him to China in 1846, and he brought the plant back to England with him, where it quickly gained popularity.

How and Where to Buy Bleeding Heart

  • Bleeding heart can be purchased boxed or bare root in their dormant state from garden shops or catalogues. Garden centers also offer the plant in spring when they are in bloom (or about to bloom). If you can, wait until the plants are just past their peak bloom and you may find them at a discounted price.
  • Choose a healthy, thick-stemmed plant. Check the hole at the bottom of the pot to make sure the roots have not emerged there, which is a sign of overcrowding.
  • This is not a good perennial to divide or transplant in spring. However, in the winter, while the plant was dormant, I've successfully dug up a small clump and separated it from the larger. A new bleeding heart grew in its new spot and the old one was none the worse for wear.

Bleeding heart in the garden with grape hyacinths.
Bleeding heart in the garden with grape hyacinths. | Source

Other Varieties

  • Dwarf ever-blooming bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) is a smaller version and only 12" - 15" tall. As the name suggests, this variety will continue to bloom through the summer if the spent blossoms are removed and the plant is kept moist.
  • King of hearts is a pink flowering, sun-tolerant version.
  • Aurora bears white flowers above grey-green foliage.
  • Luxuriant's flowers are bright red.
  • Bacchanal features rose-red flowers.

Note: The dwarf varieties do not display the perfectly-shaped little hearts like the larger plants do.

This vintage card illustrates the popularity of bleeding heart in the old days.
This vintage card illustrates the popularity of bleeding heart in the old days. | Source

The Legend and Lore of Bleeding Heart

An old story features a prince and princess. The prince is in love with the princess and brings her many gifts. Each gift looks like part of the flower, and while you tell the story, you pluck those pieces off the flower. In the end, of course, the princess refuses him, and the prince kills himself (the storyteller stabs the flower's heart with the stamen) and the princess feels guilty.

I've never taken a flower apart to investigate the bits inside that describe the tale; they are too delicate and pretty to disturb.

Bleeding heart has long been associated with Christianity. The flower is known as the Bleeding heart of Mary as well as the Bleeding heart of Jesus, a traditional concept in the Catholic Church.

Questions & Answers

  • My well established bleeding heart did not come back this spring. Is there anything I can do to save it?

    The bleeding heart can be killed by soggy soil. If you had a very wet fall or winter, the roots might have rotted. There are also fungal diseases that can harm bleeding hearts. Verticillium wilt or fusarium wilt will damage or destroy your plants.

    As you can not save a plant that is not there, maybe you should just get a new one. Dig up the old roots as well as some of the surrounding soil. Enrich the area with a soil conditioner that loosens the soil. Clay holds water so make sure you remove surrounding clay to increase drainage.


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    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      11 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Peggy, thank you so much for the lovely comment. I am happy to have brought back that beautiful memory of your grandfather. There was something special about grandparent's gardens...

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      11 years ago from Houston, Texas

      This brought back fond memories of my grandfather's garden in Wisconsin. He always had bleeding hearts planted and he would take a flower apart and tell us how each part related to Christianity. It has been a long time since those days and I haven't thought of this in a while. Thanks for bringing back this good memory.

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      11 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Olive, have you ever driven passed your old house in spring to see if it is still there? (I guess that would be kind of creepy)

    • profile image

      Olive P 

      11 years ago

      One of my favorite plants. First time I saw one was in my Gmom's garden. I loved it so much that when she passed away I dug it up and planted at my house. When I moved to where I am now it was October and the plant was out of sight. I didn't think to dig it up and take it with me. But I have one that I bought and a volunteer that came up next to it.


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