How to Grow and Care for Dicentra — Bleeding Heart

Dicentra spectabilis
Dicentra spectibilis, common bleeding heart

Dicentra, commonly called bleeding heart, is a genus of annuals and perennials prized for their graceful, pendant, heart-shaped flowers. Bleeding hearts bloom from late spring to early summer depending on the variety. Blooms can be pink, red-pink, white, yellow, or purple depending on the variety.

Dicentra flowers have more or less heart-shaped corollas. The flowers have two petals that are modified into pouches or spurs. Flowers appear on long stalks above deeply cut, fernlike leaves. The green leaves become autumnal yellow after the blooms have faded.

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Dicentras are mostly native to lightly shaded woodlands in North America and eastern Asia. There are about 20 species; most are perennials, some are annuals.

Grow Dicentra toward the front of beds and borders. They are a favorite in cottage and woodland gardens. They are a good choice for planting alongside spring-flowering bulbs or hardy ferns. The flowers are excellent for cutting.

Western bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa
Western bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa

Get to know Dicentra — bleeding heart

  • Plant type: Hardy perennial
  • Growing Zones and range: Zones 3 to 9
  • Hardiness: Hardy to -35°F (-37°C); tops of plants will die back with frost; heat tolerant
  • Height and width: 24 to 36 inches (61-91cm) tall and wide, depending on the variety
  • Foliage: Deeply cut, fernlike leaves
  • Flowers: Pendant heart-shaped flowers with projecting tips
  • Flower colors: Pink shades, red, white
  • Bloom time: Early spring and on to fall in many locations; bloom time depends on the variety
  • Uses: Beds and borders, shade garden, cottage garden woodland garden
  • Garden companions: Hostas, daffodils
  • Common name: Bleeding Heart
  • Botanical name: Dicentra spp.
  • Family: Fumariaceae
  • Origin: Asia and North America
Fringed bleeding heart, Dicentra eximia
Fringed bleeding heart, Dicentra eximia

Where to plant Dicentra — bleeding heart

  • Grow Dicentra in full sun to light shade in Zones 3 to 5; plant in light shade in Zones 6 to 9
  • Plant Dicentra in humus-rich, well-drained soil adding plenty of aged compost at planting time.
  • Dicentra prefers a soil pH of 5.5 to 7.

Dicentra uses and companions

  • Dicentra will add beauty to shade gardens and woodland gardens.
  • Plant Dicentra in shady borders; smaller species will look good in a rock garden.
  • Good garden companions for Dicentra include Bergenia, Digitalis, Epimedium, Helleborus, Hosta, Mertensia, Primula, Trillium.

When to plant Dicentra — bleeding heart

  • Sow seeds outdoors in late fall in evenly prepared soil; seeds can be started in flats in fall and left outdoors in an unheated place for spring germination.
  • Set established plants in the garden in spring or fall.

Planting and spacing Dicentra — bleeding heart

  • Sow Dicentra seed outdoors in evenly prepared soil; cover seeds lightly with soil.
  • Seeds sown in flats can be left in an unheated place through winter for spring germination. Seedlings will be much smaller than plants you would purchase at a garden center.
  • Set Dicentra plants outdoors in spring; cover the crown of the plant with 1 inch (2.5cm) of soil.
  • Space Dicentra 12 to 36 inches (30-91cm) apart depending on the variety.
Dicentra spectabilis in the garden
Dicentra spectabilis in the garden

How to water and feed Dicentra

  • Keep the soil evenly moist, especially in the first growing season.
  • Water plants every 10 days during dry periods in spring and summer.
  • Side dress Dicentra with aged compost or slow-release organic fertilizer in spring and again in autumn.

Dicentra — bleeding heart care

  • Mulch around Dicentra to keep the soil evenly moist, especially in full sun.
  • Remove spent blooms to promote more blossoms.
  • Protect plants in winter with a 3-inch (7.6cm) layer of chopped leaves heaped over the crown of plants in fall. Marke the location so you won’t disturb the plants through the winter.
Western bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa
Western bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa

Dicentra pests and diseases

  • Dicentra can be prone to stem rot when grown in damp, poorly drained locations. Improve drainage by adding organic matter to the soil; avoid overwatering.
  • Dicentra is rarely attacked by pests or diseases.

Dicentra — bleeding heart propagation

  • Dicentra seeds will germinate in 3 to 4 weeks at 50° to 55°F (10°-13°C).
  • Divide mature plants by cutting a small rooted stem from the outside of the clump in mid-spring. Replant immediately.
  • Dicentra rarely needs to be divided; divide plants only for propagation.
Common bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis
Common bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis

Dicentra — bleeding heart varieties to grow

  • Dicentra eximia, fringed bleeding heart. North American native wildflower to 18 inches (45cm) tall; bears racemes of pendent, heart-shaped pink flowers from spring to fall. Several hybrids include ‘Bountiful’ with rose-red flowers, ‘Luxuriant’ with cherry red blooms, ‘Snowdrift’ with white flowers, ‘Langgrees’ with white flowers.
  • D. formosa, Western bleeding heart. North American wildflower to 18 inches (45cm) tall, spreads to 36 inches (91cm); 1-inch (2.5cm) long heart-shaped flowers from late spring to early summer. Zones 3-9.
  • D. scandens, climbing bleeding heart. Climbing species to 36 inches (91cm) high; racemes of 1 inch (2.5cm) long yellow flowers in summer. ones 6-9.
  • D. spectabilis, common bleeding heart. Is an old-fashioned variety blooming early spring to midsummer; bushy 18 to 30 inches (45-76cm) tall; clumps spread; bears arching racemes of dangling heart-shaped flowers in rosy pink, rose-red, or white for a few weeks in spring. Zones 2-9.

Dicentra eximia — Fringed bleeding heart

Dicentra eximia bears pink flowers and gray-green foliage from early spring through fall. The fernlike leaves form a vase-shaped clump from which arise graceful upright stems with dangling 1-inch-long heart-shaped blossoms. Finged bleeding heart does not die back to the ground unlike many spring-blooming shade-loving woodland flowers; it remains attractive from summer until frost. Where summers are cool and the soil is moist, the fringed bleeding hearts will flower sporadically throughout summer and more profusely in fall, especially so with the hybrids. Fringed bleeding heart is native to forest floors from New York to Georgia.

  • Size: 9 inches to 1 ½ feet tall; 1 ¼ feet wide.
  • Light: Light to full shade.
  • Soil and moisture: Humus-rich, well-drained, moist soil; even moisture.
  • Planting and propagation: Plant container-grown plants in spring, spacing 1 foot apart. Divide clumps every three years in the fall.
  • Special care: Self-sows prolifically, but flower colors may not come true to type; easy to weed out or transplant as desired.
  • Pest and diseases: May rot in winter-wet soil.
  • Climates: Zones 3-9.
  • Cultivars and similar species: ‘Alba,’ milky white flowers, light green leaves, less vigorous, to 1 foot tall. D. formosa (western bleeding heart): similar appearance but spreads by rhizomes, blooming begins in mid-spring, more drought tolerant, less tolerant of heat and humidity. Sometimes attributed to D. eximia: ‘Zestful,’ deep rose; ‘Sweetheart,’ snow-white; ‘Bountiful,’ soft rosy-red flowers, fine-cut blue-green leaves; ‘Adrian Bloom,’ ruby-red. Hybrid: ‘Luxuriant,’ deep rose-pink flowers (not red as advertised), 1 ¼ feet tall. D. cucullaria (Dutchman’s Breeches), dies to ground by summer.
  • Garden use: A beautiful choice for shade gardens and woodland gardens combined with ferns, hostas, and wildflowers such as creeping phlox, sweet woodruff, and violets.

Dicentra spectabilis — Common bleeding heart

Dicentra spectabilis is one of the earliest blooming perennials, blossoms begin in mid-spring and continue for four or more weeks into early summer. Common bleeding heart accompanies tulips and spring-flowering trees and shrubs. Arching sprays with dancing white-tipped pink hearts appear through large clumps of boldly cut, ferny green foliage. Where light shade and moist soil are the norm, this long-lived perennial returns year after year to create a magnificent spring show. Plants usually go dormant during summer after hot weather arrives but may remain green all summer in cool, moist climates. Common bleeding heart is native to China and was introduced in 1842 to gardeners in England where it has remained popular since.

  • Size: 2 to 3 feet tall; 3 ½ feet wide.
  • Light: Light shade best; tolerates full sun if kept moist.
  • Soil and Moisture: Humus-rich, fertile, well-drained, moist soil; plentiful water.
  • Planting and propagation: Plant dormant roots or container-grown plants in spring, spacing 2 to 3 feet apart. Division is not necessary. Propagate from cuttings.
  • Special care: Drought encourages dormancy; mulch soil to keep cool and moist to prolong summer foliage.
  • Pest and diseases: Sometimes aphids.
  • Climate: Zones 2-9.
  • Cultivars: ‘Alba,’ pure white, less vigorous, pale green leaves; ‘Pantaloons,’ pure white, more vigorous than ‘Alba’.
  • Garden use: Magnificent in cottage gardens and formal borders. Combine with low ferns or hostas, which will fill in bare spots left when plants go dormant. Charming cut flower.

Dicentra Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What are the cultural requirements of bleeding-hearts?

A: Dicentra doe best in light shade, although in cool climates they will grow in full sun. If planted in too deep shade, they will not bloom. Give Dicentra humus-rich, well-drained soil.

Q: How do I propagate Dicentra?

A: Propagate Dicentra from seeds, plant division, or stem or root cutting. Do divisions in early autumn.

Q: I mulched Dicentra with leaves last winter, but the plant died. What happened?

A: A mulch that is too thick can smother Dicentra, or you may have covered the plant too early. Wait until the soil is frozen before covering the plants lightly. Remove mulch gradually in spring. It is also possible that mice ate the roots.

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