Bleeding Heart Plant Profile

Lamprocapnos spectabilis

Spring blooming bleeding hearts, known as Dicentra spectabilis

Marie Iannotti

It is no wonder how the old-fashioned bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis; formerly known as Dicentra spectabilis) got its name. The pillow-like flower is heart-shaped with a single dangling 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 are still alive, and the plant will regrow in the fall or the following spring. The fringed-leaf varieties of bleeding heart repeat-bloom throughout the summer.

Botanical Name Lamprocapnos spectabilis
Common Name Bleeding heart
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size 6 inches to 3 feet tall and 1 to 3 feet wide
Sun Exposure Part sun to shade
Soil Type Rich and moist
Soil pH Slightly acidic to neutral
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Pink, red, white
Hardiness Zones 2 to 9
Native Areas Siberia, northern China, Korea, Japan 
bleeding heart flowers (syn. Dicentra spectabilis Alba) Lamprocapnos spectabilis 'Alba' - Arching sprays of delicate, heart-shaped white flowers
Dicentra spectabilis - Alba. Jacky Parker Photography/Getty Images
Dicentra Spectabilis Gold Heart
Melissa Fague/Getty Images 

How to Grow Bleeding Hearts

In a typical growing season, a bleeding heart plant produces about 20 small flowers on each of its stems in spring. Its foliage usually enters dormancy in the midsummer heat. This sensitivity to heat makes establishing new plants more challenging in warmer zones than in colder areas. In addition, the flowers are delicate and should be protected from strong winds. The leaves are susceptible to leaf spot, 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.

Light

Bleeding heart does best in partial 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.

Soil

Bleeding heart prefers humus-rich, moist soil, with lots of organic matter, but it is not particular about soil pH. 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.

Water

Keep plants well watered throughout the summer, especially in warmer weather. Even then, they may disappear until the fall or next spring. If you recently planted your bleeding hearts, it would be wise to mark the spot, so you do not accidentally dig in the area while your plants are dormant. Western 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 wet—environment.

Temperature and Humidity

A bleeding heart plant begins to yellow once the summer heat ramps up. This is perfectly normal, as it is a sign that it is storing away energy for the winter. Its ideal temperature is 55 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. It can tolerate humidity.

Fertilizer

Bleeding heart plants are not heavy feeders, so when to fertilize depends on the quality of your soil. If you have rich, organic soil that is amended every year, you will not have to feed at all. Bleeding hearts are woodland plants and do especially well with a top dressing of leaf mold.

Is Bleeding Heart Toxic?

Bleeding heart plants contain toxic isoquinoline alkaloids that cause liver damage and seizures when ingested in large quantities. Cases of serious poisoning are rare in humans, while dogs are more susceptible, particularly small dogs, which can suffer liver damage with relatively limited exposure. Humans should not eat any part of the plant and can experience mild skin irritation or rash from contact.

Varieties of Bleeding Heart

There are a number of cultivars of the Lamprocapnos spectabilis species plant as well as some popular related species with similar growing characteristics.

  • Lamprocapnos spectabilis 'Alba': A long-time gardeners' favorite with pure white flowers
  • Lamprocapnos spectabilis 'Gold Heart': Pink flowers and yellow-gold foliage
  • Dicentra eximia, fringed-leaf bleeding heart: American native with delicate ferny foliage that will repeat-bloom throughout summer
  • Dicentra formosa, Western fringed-leaf bleeding heart: Pacific Northwest native; more drought-tolerant than D. eximia and with showier flowers
  • Dicentra cucullaria, Dutchman's breeches: Very similar to bleeding heart, with flowers like little white pantaloons

Pruning

No pruning or deadheading is required, since this plant will bloom again later in the season. Be sure to leave the flowers if you want it to go to seed. You can trim back the foliage when it starts to turn ugly. Fringed-leaf varieties will eventually get a little ragged looking and can be sheared back to their basal growth. They will re-leaf and rebloom.

Propagating Bleeding Hearts

Bleeding hearts can be started from seed, division, cutting, or seedling.

  • Starting seeds indoors: Place seeds in a pot of soil. Put the pot in a plastic bag and place in the freezer for 6 to 8 weeks. Remove the pot and all to germinate and grow in regular seedling conditions.
  • Division: It is very easy to divide bleeding heart plants. Bleeding hearts should be divided after flowering, so you do not sacrifice bloom. The fringed-leaf varieties divide nicely early in spring, as they are emerging.
  • Direct seed or cuttings: Bleeding heart can also be started by seed or stem cuttings. Plants very often self-seed throughout your garden, although not to the point of being a nuisance. Sow seed outdoors in the fall; the seeds need a period of freezing temperatures.

Landscaping Uses for Bleeding Heart

Bleeding hearts usually bloom about the same time as pulmonaria, brunnera, and hellebores, all of which contribute to a wonderful woodland cottage effect.

Bleeding hearts will stay in bloom for several weeks, but the foliage tends to go downhill after flowering. Plan to have late-emerging plants nearby, to fill in the hole if your bleeding hearts go dormant and disappear. Coral bells, ferns, foam flower, hosta, and monkshood are good companions.