Types of Bleeding Hearts

Flower Meaning, Plant Facts

Closeup image showing what bleeding heart's flower looks like.
If you crave whimsy in the landscape, bleeding heart may be the ultimate fun plant for you to grow. David Beaulieu

Plant taxonomy classifies the most popular type of bleeding hearts as Dicentra spectabilis. Examples are mentioned below of some other types for purposes of comparison and contrast. You may also occasionally see the plants listed under the newer genus name, Lamprocapnos. They are in the poppy family and native to the Far East.

The common names used to refer to Dicentra spectabilis are "common" or "old-fashioned" bleeding heart. Botanically speaking, bleeding hearts are herbaceous perennials.

Characteristics, Best Feature

Bleeding hearts usually reach 2-3 feet in height with a similar spread. Plants bloom in April or May. The flowers hang down neatly in a row from arching stems. The plants' flowers are most typically pink or white. 'Alba' is the white cultivar. But the red-flowered Valentine® may offer the most appropriate color (considering the name, "bleeding hearts"). If you want yellow flowers, you have to go to a different species: Dicentra scandens (a vine form).  

Their outstanding characteristic is no doubt the shape of the flowers, a shape that makes bleeding heart one of the most fun plants to grow in your yard. As the plants' common name suggests, bleeding hearts bear heart-shaped flowers, from which a little "drop of blood" dangles at the bottom. On the type with pink flowers, the drop is prettiest, some feel, before the bloom fully opens, since, during this early period, the sides of the otherwise white drop are streaked with pink; after the bloom fully opens, the drops are white all over. They are truly among the most whimsical plants you can grow in the landscape.

There is a cultivar with golden leaves (and pink flowers) named Dicentra spectabilis 'Gold Heart.' As "spectacular" as the regular Dicentra spectabilis is, the golden type adds another whole dimension to growing these plants.

Bleeding heart flowers
Amar Rai / Getty Images

Meaning of Bleeding Heart Flowers

Flowers have traditionally been assigned various meanings, based both on the type of flower and the specific color. The meanings of roses are probably the best known to the general public. But other plants carry meanings, too, including bleeding hearts; here is how it breaks down, by color:

  1. Pink-flowered types: romantic love.
  2. Red-flowered types: also romantic love.
  3. White-flowered types: purity.

Types of Bleeding Hearts Native to North America

Let's begin by mentioning three types that are native to Eastern North America:

  1. Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) bear white flowers that truly do remind one of pairs of pants hung out to dry on a clothesline.
  2. Squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis) often grows side by side with Dutchman's breeches in the forests of New England (U.S.).
  3. Fringed bleeding hearts (Dicentra eximia) bear dusty-pink blooms, and their leaves are prized for their fringe-like texture. In fact, some gardeners prefer this type over Dicentra spectabilis because of this ferny, longer-lasting foliage.

Meanwhile, Dicentra formosa is the Western bleeding heart. It is native to the Pacific Coast.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zones, Sun and Soil Requirements

Bleeding hearts are very hardy plants: they can be grown in planting zones 3-9 (some sources list them even for zone 2). Grow bleeding hearts in partial shade to full shade, in a well-drained, slightly acidic soil that has plenty of humus. Keep the ground consistently moist during the growing season. 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.

Care, Uses, and a Warning: Bleeding Heart Is Poisonous!

Divide these plants in the springtime. Being deer-resistant perennials, at least you do not have to be concerned about protecting them from marauding deer pests. They are also rabbit-proof flowers. Perhaps the deer and rabbits leave them alone due to the fact that they are poisonous plants if eaten in large quantities, according to North Carolina State University. For this reason, if you have a pet that is inclined to go on dining sprees in your garden, make sure that access is denied to your bleeding hearts.

Bleeding hearts are traditional favorites in shade gardens, including woodland gardens. Their foliage does die back into dormancy after the plants have finished flowering, unfortunately, leaving vacant spots behind in the planting bed. To slow down die-back, give bleeding heart water even after the flowering period is done. It is also a good idea to surround bleeding hearts with companion plants that will hide those vacant spots during the summer. Good companion plants include such shade-loving perennials as hosta plants and Brunnera 'Jack Frost.'

Bleeding hearts are striking enough to warrant their use as specimen plants in spring.