Common Bleeding Heart Plant Profile

Bleeding heart flower.
David Beaulieu

Common bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis) is a spring-blooming herbaceous perennial plant that grows arching stems from rhizomatous roots and produces arching sprays of small heart-shaped flowers of pink and white. Formerly known as Dicentra spectabilis, this plant enjoys shady conditions and is a favorite of gardeners in shady borders and woodland situations.

The plant typically grows to two or three feet in height. The tiny blossoms, up to 20 on each stem, appear in spring, and by mid-summer the foliage often goes dormant. They are best planted in combination with other plants that can fill in space once bleeding heart fades. Another advantage to bleeding hearts is that they are rarely eaten by deer or rabbits—probably because these plants are mildly toxic if eaten in large quantities.

Flowers have traditionally been assigned various meanings, based both on the type of flower and the specific color. With bleeding heart, traditionally the pink-flowered and red-flowered types are said to symbolize romantic love, while white-flowered types signify purity.

Botanical Name Lamprocapnos spectabilis (formerly Dicentra spectabilis)
Common Names Common bleeding heart, bleeding heart
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial flower
Mature Size 24 to 26 inches tall, spread of 18 to 30 inches
Sun Exposure Full shade to part shade; tolerate some sun
Soil Type Fertile and well-drained
Soil pH 6.0 to 6.5; tolerates pH up to 7.5
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Pink, white, and white, with cultivar variations
Hardiness Zones 3 to 9, USDA
Native Area Siberia, Japan, northern China, and Korea
A branch of bleeding heart flowers
Amar Rai/Getty Images

How to Grow Bleeding Heart

Grow bleeding hearts in partial shade to full shade, in a well-drained, slightly acidic to neutral soil that has plenty of humus. Mix in compost before planting if the soil is not ideal. Since the flowers are delicate (and you will want to enjoy the sense of whimsy they bring to the garden for as long as possible), select a site for them that is sheltered from high winds.

Fertilize plants each spring by working a balanced granular fertilizer into the soil around the base of the plants. Keep the ground consistently moist during the growing season. Foliage can be cut back to ground level when it turns yellow and brown in summer. Root division is not necessary but can be done in the spring to propagate new plants.

Common bleeding heart exhibits no serious insect or disease problems, but it has some susceptibility to aphids. The plant may develop root rot if the soil is too wet for extended periods.

Light

Grow this plant in partial shade to full shade. It will tolerate some sun, especially in cooler climates.

Soil

Moist, well-drained soil with a high-level of organic humus is best for this plant. It prefers a slightly acidic to neutral soil pH.

Water

Keep soil moist, but the foliage dry. These plants need a full 1 inch of water each week, either through rainfall or irrigation. When planted beneath trees or shrubs with thirsty roots, it may require twice weekly waterings. Do not allow the roots of bleeding heart to soak in water, however.

Temperature and Humidity

The bleeding heart likes relatively cool conditions and will not do well with too much sun, especially in the southern part of the hardiness range. It tolerates a wide range of humidity levels.

Fertilizer

Mix compost or peat moss into the soil before planting, then feed each spring with granular fertilizer mixed into the soil around the base of the plant.

Propagating Bleeding Heart

To propagate, dig up the roots in the early spring, and divide them into pieces. Discard any dried-out pieces, then replant the segments.

Varieties of Common Bleeding Heart

  • Lamprocapnos spectabilis 'Alba': Pure white flowers
  • Lamprocapnos spectabilis 'Gold Heart': Pink flowers and yellow-gold foliage; a little flashier, but the gold punches up a shady garden

Toxicity of Bleeding Heart

Like a surprisingly large number of plants, bleeding heart is toxic if it is eaten in large enough quantities. This is rare with people, but dogs are frequently poisoned by the plant. The bleeding heart contains isoquinoline alkaloids, which can cause seizures and damage to the liver at high enough doses. For small dogs, even a fairly small amount can cause liver damage. Touching the plant can also cause mild skin rashes. Fatalities are rare in people, though more common in dogs, so it is best to keep pets and children away from this plant.

Comparison With Related Species

A number of related species you might want to consider include:

  • Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) bears white flowers that are truly reminiscent of pairs of pants hung out to dry on a clothesline.
  • Squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis) often grows side by side with Dutchman's breeches in the forests of New England.
  • Fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) bear dusty-pink blooms, and its leaves are prized for their fringe-like texture. In fact, some gardeners prefer this type over the common bleeding heart because of this ferny, longer-lasting foliage.
  • Western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) is the Western bleeding heart. It is native to the Pacific coast.