The common bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis; formerly Dicentra spectabilis) got its name for its pillow-like, heart-shaped flower that dangles like a single pendulous drop. Bleeding hearts are shade-loving woodland plants that bloom in the cool of spring. Although they stay in bloom for several weeks, the plants often become ephemeral, disappearing for the rest of the summer if exposed to too much sun or heat. The roots stay alive, and the plant will regrow in fall or the following spring. The fringed-leaf varieties of bleeding heart repeat bloom throughout the summer.
There are many other species in the Dicentra genus called bleeding hearts, though these are primarily wildflowers that aren't commonly grown in cultivation. Bleeding hearts have a medium growth rate and reach their mature size in about 60 days. This plant is toxic to humans and animals.
|Common Name||Bleeding heart, common bleeding heart, fern-leaf bleeding heart|
|Botanical Name||Lamprocapnos spectabilis|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous, perennial|
|Mature Size||6 in.-3 ft. tall, and 1-3 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Part shade to full shade|
|Soil Type||Rich and moist|
|Soil pH||6.0 to 6.5 (slightly acidic); will tolerate neutral soils|
|Flower Color||Pink, red, white|
|Hardiness Zones||2 to 9 (USDA)|
|Toxicity||Toxic to humans and animals (most commonly dogs)|
Bleeding Heart Care
In a typical growing season, a bleeding heart plant produces about 20 small flowers on its stems in spring. Its foliage usually enters dormancy in the midsummer heat, and this sensitivity to heat makes establishing new plants more challenging in warmer zones than in colder areas. In addition, the flowers are delicate and require protection from strong winds.
Bleeding hearts usually bloom about the same time as pulmonaria, brunnera, and hellebores, and they all contribute to a beautiful woodland cottage effect. Bleeding hearts will stay in bloom for several weeks, but the foliage tends to go downhill after flowering. These plants will also self-seed if not deadheaded. If your bleeding hearts go dormant and disappear, plan to have late-emerging plants to fill in space vacated by bleeding hearts. Coral bells, ferns, foam flowers, hosta, and monkshood are good companions.
Bleeding heart is relatively trouble-free, although common garden problems such as aphids and powdery mildew are occasional issues. The leaves are susceptible to leaf spots, and the easiest solution is to shear back the affected foliage. Although bleeding hearts like moist soil, they cannot tolerate heavy, wet soil and may get root rot if left with wet feet too long.
Bleeding hearts do best in part shade. Since it is such an early bloomer, planting near a deciduous tree is a good spot. The plant will be up and growing before the tree leaves out, and when the bleeding heart needs protection from the summer sun, the tree will provide it.
Bleeding heart prefers humus-rich, moist soil, with lots of organic matter, but it is not too particular about soil pH. It prefers slightly acidic soil but will do fine in neutral soils. Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure, over the existing soil. Work it in to improve aeration and create a loose soil that allows the roots to grow. It prefers a well-draining soil that will not let the roots get soggy and rot.
Keep plants well-watered throughout the summer, especially in warmer weather. They require about 1 inch of water per week, either through rainfall or manual watering. If they are planted right next to a thirsty tree or bush, water them again that week with another inch. If your plants disappear until the fall or next spring, mark the spot, so you do not accidentally dig in the area while your plants are dormant. Also, even if the site is bare, continue to water the area to keep the bleeding heart's roots hydrated. Bleeding heart is a little more drought-tolerant than the other species, but it is still best to treat them all as woodland plants and provide a moist (but not too wet) environment.
Temperature and Humidity
A bleeding heart plant begins to yellow once the summer heat ramps up. This yellowing is perfectly normal and is a sign that it is storing its energy for the winter. Its ideal temperature is 55 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and it has a good tolerance for high humidity.
Bleeding heart plants are not heavy feeders, so when to fertilize depends on the quality of your soil. If you have rich, organic soil amended every year, you will not have to feed at all. Bleeding hearts are woodland plants and do exceptionally well with a top dressing of leaf mold.
Types of Bleeding Heart
These cultivars of the Lamprocapnos spectabilis species plant also have some popular closely related species with similar growing characteristics:
- Lamprocapnos spectabilis 'Alba': A long-time gardeners' favorite with pure white flowers
- L. spectabilis 'Gold Heart': A variety with pink flowers and yellow-gold foliage
- L. spectabilis ‘Valentine’: Bright cherry-red blooms with white tips cultivar; stems are burgundy colored
- Dicentra eximia, fringed-leaf bleeding heart: American native with delicate fernlike foliage that will repeat bloom throughout summer; 'Zestful' is an especially popular cultivar with pink flowers
- D. cucullaria, Dutchman's breeches: Very similar to bleeding heart with flowers that look like tiny white pantaloons
No pruning or deadheading is required since this plant may bloom again later in the season. Leave the flowers if you want them to go to seed. Trim back the foliage when it starts to brown and turn ugly. Fringed-leaf varieties can also get a little ragged-looking and can be sheared back to their basal growth; they will re-leaf and rebloom.
Propagating Bleeding Heart
Bleeding heart is usually planted from nursery seedlings, but you can propagate bleeding heart from seeds, clump division, or stem cuttings. Propagation by cuttings is best done in spring to early summer. If you are starting from seeds in the garden, sow them in the fall. Propagation is a good way to rejuvenate older plants that tend to flower less. Here's how to propagate bleeding hearts:
Propagation by division: It is very easy to divide the root clumps of bleeding heart plants. You should divide after flowering is complete so you do not sacrifice bloom. The fringed-leaf varieties divide nicely early in spring as they are emerging.
- If the plant is in the ground, you will need a shovel or trowel. Other items you'll need include a sterilized, sharp knife and a flat surface. If you're transplanting into a container, you'll need a pot and potting mix.
- Dig a circle around the crown of the roots and pull up the root ball. The roots grow horizontally. Do not worry when cutting through the roots.
- Examine the root crown. Look for pink buds of growth. Cut through the root ball, leaving at least one bud per sectioned area (two to three buds per section is better).
- Replant the root ball in potting mix enriched with compost or leaf mold, or decomposing leaves. Water thoroughly, moisten the soil but do not leave it too wet or soggy.
Propagation by cuttings: Bleeding heart can also be started by cuttings rooted in a growing medium. It can take 10 days to three weeks before rooting occurs.
- You will need sterilized pruners to take a 3- to 5-inch cutting from a healthy bleeding heart plant. You'll also need a container, an enriched, well-draining potting soil, and a plastic bag. Optionally, you can use a rooting hormone for improving rooting success.
- Take off the leaves from the bottom half of the stem. Fill the container with the potting soil, poke a hole in the soil in the center of the container using a finger. Dip the cut end of the cutting into rooting hormone and put it into the hole. Firmly put the potting mix gently around the stem.
- Water the soil to the point it's moist but not soggy. Put a clear plastic bag around the cutting, not touching the plant. If condensation appears on the inside of the bag, poke a hole in the plastic for some ventilation.
- Place the plant in indirect light. A bright windowsill will be too sunny and scorch the plant.
- Once you notice new growth, the plant has successfully rooted. Remove the plastic bag.
- Move the bleeding heart plant outdoors once it's rooted well and new growth is more abundant. Harden off the plants in a protected spot for a few days before moving them to their permanent spot outdoors.
How to Grow Bleeding Hearts From Seed
To starting seeds indoors, place the seeds in a pot of soil. Put the pot in a plastic bag and place it in the freezer for 6 to 8 weeks. Remove the pot and gradually reintroduce the plant to light and warmer conditions. The change in temperature and exposure to sunlight will allow the seeds to germinate and sprout. Bleeding hearts also tend to self-seed in the garden, though not invasively. The tiny seedlings can be carefully dug up and transplanted.
Potting and Repotting Bleeding Hearts
Bleeding hearts live well as container plants, but conditions need to be right. When potting it, opt for a large container, at least a 12-inch pot. They can become a substantial plant, growing more than 3 feet tall. A bleeding heart can grow for four to five years in a large container before being divided and repotted. Make sure you use well-draining, enriched potting soil. The type of pot you use doesn't matter—ceramic or plastic are fine—only make sure it has ample drainage holes so roots do not sit in soggy soil.
To repot it, get a container with at least 2 to 3 inches of extra growing room around the root ball and below. Put at least 2 inches of new soil at the bottom of the pot. Center the root ball and put soil all around its circumference. Water thoroughly and keep the plant in a shady or partially lit spot.
Bleeding hearts naturally die back during the winter season. The rhizome or root ball will survive the cold winter even if the plant appears dead above ground. You can cut the stems down to one or two inches from the surface level. Keep watering the soil up until the first frost. At the start of the winter season, you can protect the roots and help them retain moisture by adding a two-inch layer of mulch on top of the plant stems. Remove the mulch as the frosty season ends.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
The plant's most significant pest problems are aphids, scale, and slugs and snails. The easiest and least invasive treatment for aphids and scale is using an insecticidal soap or neem oil. Slugs and snails are best to remedy by physically picking them off and disposing of them in a bucket of soapy water, and they are easiest to find at night and in the early morning.
In terms of disease, bleeding hearts are prone to diseases common to shady plants, such as fungal infections like soggy soil that leads to root rot, powdery mildew, and leaf spot. In most cases, you can treat the plant with a fungicide by following the instructions on the packaging. If the plant has turned black and foul-smelling, it's rotting and can infect other nearby plants. It's best to pull up the plant. If the plant is in a container, sterilize the entire container and throw out the soil. If the rot occurred in your yard or garden, treat the planting spot with a fungicide.
To prevent future fungus issues, irrigate your plant's soil (not the plant itself). Excessive moisture on the plant's foliage in shady spots may encourage fungal growth.
How to Get Bleeding Hearts to Bloom
Bleeding hearts are usually spring-blooming plants and will continue to flower into the summer until it gets too hot for them. Hot temps trigger the plant to die off and enter dormancy. If you don't notice any flowering, note that this plant takes some time to establish and may not flower in its first growing season. If it's not flowering, the plant may still be too young or need to be divided.
To trigger the plant to bloom again in the season, you can stimulate new growth by cutting the plant down to one inch of the ground surface. It may get the plant growing again. You can give the plant fertilizer every six weeks. This plant enjoys rich, moist soil but not too wet that it's boggy. Ensure the plant stays out of the direct sunlight; the flowers do not tolerate the sun much.
Common Problems With Bleeding Hearts
Bleeding hearts grow well in shady spots. However, shade-loving plants are often prone to problems with excessive moisture and fungal disease. Most of the issues your plant will experience are likely due to watering, insect activity, or fungus.
Powdery Patches on Its Foliage
Spots of black, gray, white, or pink powder on its leaves indicate powdery mildew, a treatable disease when treated immediately. Its growth gets stunted and looks gnarled, curled, and unsightly. A fungicide will remove the problem. To prevent this from occurring, make sure plants are watered on the soil (not on the foliage) and make sure the plants have plenty of aeration and are not too crowded.
Brown or Black Spots on the Leaves
If the bleeding heart plant develops small brown or black spots on the leaves that grow larger with a yellow ring or halo with the center of the ring beginning to rot out, then the plant likely has fungal leaf spot. Treatment with a fungicide or baking soda solution may neutralize the fungus if caught early enough. As the disease progresses, the leaves drop and the plant will die.
Bleeding hearts naturally turns yellow and dies as the temperature turns hot. If that is the case, there is no reason to do anything. The plant is entering dormancy, which is its normal growth cycle. However, yellowing can also occur if the plant is getting too much water, the soil is too alkaline, or if the plant is getting too much sun. Adjust those conditions.
Also, check the plant to see if it has an infestation of aphids. Aphids suck the sap out of plants, depriving the plants of their nutrients, leading to leaf drop and can cause plant death. Yellowing can also be a sign of a fungal disease emerging. Verticillium or fusarium are severe fungal infections that start with yellowing. If your plant has this disease, it is not salvageable and should be destroyed before it spreads to other plants.
Browning, Blackening, or Rapid Wilting of the Plant
Diseases like verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, botrytis, and root rot will cause a plant to fail quickly. Initial signs will be wilting, leading to all over-browning or the plant beginning to rot. In the case of botrytis, it will appear like a gray mold is overtaking the plant. In most cases, if your plant is infected with these fungal issues and has begun browning or blackening, the plant is too far gone. You can attempt to resurrect it with a fungicide, but it's not going to work in most of these cases. Remove all of the soil, discard it, and sterilize the container before using the pot again. Burn or seal the plant in a plastic bag before discarding it.
Are bleeding hearts easy to care for?
If conditions are suitable—acidic soil and a moist but not soggy, shady location—this plant will likely thrive and be easy to care for. It will self-seed and propagates readily.
What's the difference between bleeding heart bush and bleeding heart vine?
Bleeding heart bush is the same as common bleeding hearts (Lamprocapnos spectabilis), a perennial plant native to Asia. Bleeding heart vine (Clerodendrum thomsoniae), also known as tropical bleeding heart, is a different species, hailing from Africa and differing in looks, growing conditions, and hardiness.
Can you grow bleeding hearts indoors?
If you recreate their ideal growing and flowering conditions (temperature of 65 F), bleeding hearts can grow indoors. Bleeding heart seeds need six to eight weeks of stratification or cooling in the freezer to trick them into thinking it's winter. Once brought to room temperature, the seeds will germinate. The only other components the seeds need are humus-rich, moist, well-draining potting soil, neutral or slightly acidic pH, and partial sunlight.